Interesting Facts about the Monkey King

Last updated: 08-28-2022

I recently posted a list of facts about Sun Wukong (孫悟空) to reddit. I am presenting an elongated version of it here, which serves as a summation of everything that I’ve learned over the years. It is by no means comprehensive. I’ll add more facts in the future as I learn of them. Enjoy.

Current count: 108

  1. He was likely influenced by the Hindu monkey god Hanuman (Ch: Ha nu man, 哈奴曼) in different waves, one possibly from the north (via Tibet) and another from the south (via Southeast Asia). But the parallels are most apparent from the standard 1592 edition of JTTW, suggesting that the author-compiler had access to some form of the Indian epic Rāmāyana (7th-c. BCE to 3rd-c. CE). The novel even includes material from the epic Mahābhārata (4th-c. BCE to 4th-c. CE).
  2. In my opinion, however, the greatest influence on his 1592 persona is a white ape antagonist from a Tang-era story. Similarities include: 1) both are supernatural primates possessed of human speech; 2) one thousand-year-old practitioners of longevity arts; 3) masters of Daoist magic with the ability to fly and change their appearance; 4) warriors capable of single-handedly defeating an army; 5) have a fondness for armed martial arts; 6) have an iron-hard, nigh-invulnerable body immune to most efforts to harm them; 7) have eyes that flash like lightning; 8) live in verdant mountain paradises (like Flower Fruit Mountain); and 9) reside in caves with stone furniture (like the Water Curtain Cave).
  3. He has the second longest association with the JTTW story cycle, appearing as the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者) circa 1000 (or before). Sha Wujing’s earliest antecedent appeared during the 8th-century, while Zhu Bajie didn’t appear until the 14th-century.
  4. The oldest published mention of the Monkey Pilgrim is a eulogy appearing in a tale from Zhang Shinan’s (張世南) Memoirs of a Traveling Official (Youhuan jiwen, 遊宦紀聞, 13th-century). One scholar dates the story to around 1127.
  5. The oldest depictions of this character (late-11th to late-13th-century) appear in Buddhist cave art along the Silk Road in Northern China. He is almost always portrayed in a scene worshiping the Bodhisattva Guanyin.
  6. A 13th-century version of JTTW describes the Monkey Pilgrim as a white-clad scholar who is an ancient immortal from the very beginning of the tale. He was beaten with an iron rod as a young immortal after he stole magic peaches and was subsequently banished to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. He actively searches out the monk to protect him as the cleric’s two previous incarnations were eaten by a monster (Sha Wujing’s antecedent) in the past.

  7. This immortal fights with two staves (at different times), a golden-ringed monk’s staff and an iron staff (both borrowed from heaven). The monk’s staff can create destructive blasts of light, as well as transform into titanic creatures, including a club-wielding yaksha and an iron dragon. The iron staff isn’t shown to have any special powers. These weapons were later combined by storytellers, the rings from the former being added to the ends of the latter.

  8. He is called the “Monkey King” (Houwang, 猴王) as far back as the 13th-century version. This position is likely based on a jataka tale about the Buddha’s past life as a king of monkeys.
  9. The immortal is bestowed the title “Great Sage Steel Muscles and Iron Bones” (Gangjin tiegu dasheng, 鋼筋鐵骨大聖) at the end of the story by Tang Taizong.
  10. This immortal was heavily influenced by the Buddhist Saint Mulian (目連; Sk: Maudgalyayana).
  11. He was popular even in Korea and appeared in a set of carvings from a 14th-century stone pagoda.
  12. The earliest mention of the name “Sun Wukong” that I’m aware of appears in an early-15th-century zaju play. It depicts the character as a sex-crazed maniac who kidnaps a princess to be his wife, tries to seduce Princess Iron Fan, and later gets erectile disfunction when his golden headband tightens while trying to have sex with a young maiden in the Kingdom of Women.
  13. The dharma name “Wukong” (悟空) was likely influenced by a historical monk of that name who traveled to India during the 8th-century. The name means “Awakened to Emptiness”, thus referencing Buddhist enlightenment. I think the corresponding Sanskrit name would be something like “Bodhiśūnyatā” (but don’t quote me on this).

  14. The surname “Sun” (孫) means “grandson” but is an open reference to husun (猢猻, lit: “grandson of the barbarian”), the Chinese word for “macaque“. It was also a popular surname for supernatural primates in stories associated with the Lingyin Temple (靈隱寺), which also likely influenced the Monkey King.

  15. The 1592 edition of the novel associates the components of Sun (孫 = zi, 子 & xi, 系) (ch. 1 – see section 4.2 here) with the formation of a “holy embryo” (shengtai, 聖胎), an immortal spirit that lives on after the adherent dies.

  16. So taking all of the Buddhist and Daoist references into account, another translation for Sun Wukong would be “Immortal Awakened to Enlightenment”. This is a reference to the Buddho-Daoist philosophy of Zhang Boduan (張伯端, mid- to late-980s-1082), who believed that in order to become a true transcendent (xian, 仙), one had to achieve both the Daoist elixir of immortality and Buddha-nature (i.e. Buddhahood).

  17. The aforementioned zaju play calls him the “Great Sage Reaching Heaven” (Tongtian dasheng, 通天大聖).

  18. Said play also states that he has two sisters and two brothers. The sisters are respectively named the “Venerable Mother of Mount Li” (Lishan laomu, 驪山老母) and “Holy Mother Wuzhiqi” (Wuzhiqi shengmu, 巫支祇聖母). His older brother is called “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖) and the younger the “Third Son Shuashua” (Shuashua sanlang, 耍耍三郎).

  19. His story in the 1592 version takes place not in our world but in one modeled after ancient Hindo-Buddhist cosmic geography, which features four island-like continents floating in a great ocean around the four respective faces of a cosmic mountain. And yet the novel was published during a time coinciding with the late Renaissance period in Europe, precisely 49 years after Copernicus suggested that the Earth orbits the sun.
  20. His home, the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit (Huaguo shan, 花果山), is located near the easternmost continent, while China is associated with the southernmost continent. This means that Monkey, within the novel, is not Chinese!
  21. He has had past lives (see the 11-24-20 update here).
  22. He’s not the only figure from world myth born from stone. In fact, “Birth from rock” (T544.1) is a mythic category appearing in Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk-Literature.

  23. While his stone birth (ch. 1) is likely based on that of Yu the Great (Dayu, 大禹), a legendary King of the Xia dynasty (more on this below), it may ultimately be linked to Tibetan stories of stone-born monkey deities.
  24. He was likely born during the late-Zhou Dynasty (circa 1046-256 BCE).
  25. He serves as a physical manifestation of the “Mind Monkey” (xinyuan, 心猿), a Buddho-Daoist philosophy denoting the disquieted thoughts that keep Man trapped in the illusory world of Saṃsāra (see the material below figure three here). This phrase is also surprisingly associated with sexual desire.
  26. Despite the association above, Monkey shows no interest in sex throughout the entire novel. This may be a response to the highly sexualized Sun Wukong from the zaju play.
  27. The novel also gives him the alchemical title “Squire of Metal/Gold” (Jingong, 金公), a possible “anagrammatic reading of the Chinese graph for lead or qian 鉛, which may be broken up into the two graphs of jin and gong” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 532 n. 3). Lead is an ingredient in external alchemy (see the material after figure two here). The title might also be referring to the earthly branch shen (申), which is associated with both metal and monkeys (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 532 n. 3).
  28. The overall arc of his birth and early life were likely based on that of the historical Buddha to make his tale more familiar to readers. Similarities include: A) supernatural births that split open their respective mothers (Queen Maya vs stone egg); B) producing a radiant splendor in all directions upon their birth; C) being talented students that quickly master concepts taught to them; D) early lives as royals (Indian prince vs king of monkeys); E) shock at the impermanence of life; F) questing for a spiritual solution to said impermanence; and G) finding said solution via spiritual practices (Indic meditation vs Daoist elixir arts).

  29. His “Water Curtain Cave” (Shuilian dong, 水簾洞), the grotto-heaven where he and his people live in the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, is associated with a different immortal in older religious literature. For instance, the Song-era text Master Ghost Valley’s Numinous Writ of the Essence of Heaven (Guigu zi tiansui lingwen鬼谷子天隨靈文) calls the titular character the “Master of the Waterfall Cave” (Shuilian dong zhu, 水濂洞主). In this case, the source uses a different lian (濂) in place of the lian (簾) associated with Monkey’s cave. But they both mean the same thing: a waterfall hiding a cave mouth (see the 12-11-21 update here). One 17th-century novel influenced by JTTW states that Master Ghost Valley lives in the Water Curtain Cave (Shuilian dong, 水簾洞; i.e. the same as Monkey’s home) with his student, the Warring States strategist Sun Bin (孫臏, d. 316 BCE). This means that two characters surnamed Sun (孫) live there in Chinese literature (see section II here).
  30. Despite modern media portraying him as an adult-sized humanoid character that is sometimes handsome and/or very muscular, the 1592 version describes him as an ugly, bald, and skinny Rhesus macaque that is less than four feet tall. This means that one of the most powerful warriors in the Buddho-Daoist cosmos is the size of a child.
  31. While commonly portrayed as a Daoist immortal, his first master, the Patriarch Subodhi (Xuputi zushi, 須菩提祖師) (ch. 1 & 2), is shown to live in India and have a strong connection to Buddhism, possibly even being a Bodhisattva.
  32. The breathing and energy circulation methods that Monkey uses to achieve immortality (ch. 2) are based on real Daoist elixir practices.
  33. The actual name for his famous 72 Transformations is “Multitude of Terrestrial Killers” (Disha shu, 地煞數), which is based on a popular set of malevolent stellar gods.
  34. This skill not only allows Monkey to transform into whatever he wants but also gives him a store of extra heads and possibly even extra lives like a video game (see section 4.4 # 3 here).
  35. He specifically learns the 72 Transformations (ch. 3) in order to hide from a trio of elemental calamities sent by heaven to punish cultivators for defying their fate and achieving immortality. This is the origin of the “Heavenly Tribulation” (tianjie, 天劫; zhongjie, 重劫) trope from modern Xianxia literature.
  36. But, surprisingly, he is not a true immortal, just long-lived and really hard to kill. The novel refers to him as a “bogus immortal” (yaoxian, 妖仙). This references Zhang Boduan’s aforementioned philosophy where one must obtain both the Daoist elixir (which Monkey did) and Buddha-Nature (which he hadn’t yet achieved) in order to be a true transcendent.
  37. While training under Subodhi (ch. 3), he expressly passes on learning the bureaucratic-style magic rites normally used by earthly priests to request something from heaven because the skills involved won’t result in eternal life. Instead, after achieving immortality, Monkey just commands the gods to do his bidding (see section II here).
  38. He can grow 100,000 feet (30,480 m) tall (ch. 1, 6, 61, and 97). This skill is called the “Method of Modeling Heaven on Earth” (Fatian xiangdi, 法天像地), and it is related to ancient Pre-Qin and Han concepts of astral-geography later used in the construction of imperial Chinese cities.
  39. His magic “immortal breath” (xianqi, 仙氣) can transform his hairs, his staff, and objects not in direct contact with his body into anything he desires. It can also change disembodied souls into “ether” for ease of transport, and evidence suggests that it can even grant some form of immortality.
  40. Monkey has 84,000 hairs on his body, and he can transform them into hundreds of thousands, millions, and even billions of hair clones (see the 03-19-22 update here).
  41. The novel only mentions him learning martial arts in passing (ch. 67 – see section 4.5 here), but one episode (ch. 51) features a battle between Monkey and a demon king in which they use a host of real world fighting techniques that are still known and practiced today.
  42. His favorite style of boxing is “Short Fist” (duanquan, 短拳) (see the 05-02-18 update here).
  43. His skill with the staff is so great that the novel compares it to techniques from two manuals listed among the Seven Military Classics of China (see the 08-07-18 update here).
  44. The bureaucratic mix-up that resulted in his soul being dragged to hell (ch. 3) is based on “mistaken summons” to the underworld and “return-from-death” narratives present in early Chinese “miraculous tales” (Zhiguai xiaoshuo, 志怪小説) (Campany, 1990).
  45. When he looks at his entry in the ledgers of hell, he learns that: 1) his soul number is “1,350”; 2) his real name is “Heaven-Born Stone Monkey” (Tianchan shihou, 天產石猴); and 3) he was fated to have a “good end” at the ripe old age of 342. This refers to a person’s pre-allotted lifespan (ming, 命) (Campany, 2005; Campany & Ge, 2002, pp. 47-52).
  46. The distance that his cloud-somersault can travel, 108,000 li (33,554 mi / 54,000 km), is based on a metaphor for instantaneous enlightenment. It comes from the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Chan Patriarch Huineng (惠能). The Chan Master explains that the common trope of the Buddha’s paradise being separated from the world of man by 108,000 li is based on a combination of the “Ten Evils” (Shi’e, 十惡) and “Eight Wrongs” (Baxie, 八邪) of Buddhism. Those who rid themselves of these spiritual flaws will achieve enlightenment and thus arrive instantly at the Buddha’s paradise.
  47. The initial depiction of his magic staff as a great iron pillar kept in the dragon kingdom treasury (ch. 3) is based on a metal column that the immortal Xu Xun (許遜) chained a demonic dragon to and then imprisoned in the aquatic realm in Chinese mythology.
  48. It’s a common misconception that his staff weighed down the Milky Way galaxy. This is based on a mistranslation. The W. J. F. Jenner edition claims that the weapon anchored said star cluster. However, the original Chinese states that it was used as a means to measure and set the depths of the Heavenly River (Tianhe, 天河; a.k.a. Milky Way).

  49. The weight of his staff is likely an embellishment on the weight of a heavy stone block lifted by the bandit-hero Wu Song (武松) in the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400). This episode and the JTTW episode where Monkey acquires his staff both involve a hero (Wu Song vs Sun Wukong) asking someone (a friend vs the Dragon King) to take them to a seemingly immovable object (stone block vs iron pillar). They then adjust their clothing before lifting the object with ease. Most importantly, the Chinese characters for the respective weights are visually similar. Sun’s staff is 13,500 catties (yiwan sanqian wubai jin, 一萬三千五百斤; 17,5560 lbs. / 7965.08 kg), while the stone block is 300 to 500 catties (sanwubai jin, 三五百斤; 390-650 lbs. / 177-295 kg). The characters in bold indicate the similarities between the two weights, where as those in red indicate the embellishments: 一萬五百斤.

  50. He singlehandedly defeats the “Nine Planets” (Sk: Navagraha; Ch: Jiuyao, 九曜, “Nine Luminaries”), personifications of the sun and planets from Hindu astrology (Gansten, 2009), during his rebellion (ch. 4) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 170-172).
  51. His time as the Bimawen (弼馬溫, “To assist horse temperament”), a minor post overseeing the heavenly horse stables (ch. 4), is based on an ancient Chinese practice of placing monkeys in horse stables to ward off equine sicknesses. The belief was that the menstrual blood of female monkeys mixed with horse food somehow guarded against diseases. This is hilarious as the position links Sun Wukong to menstruation!

  52. His title “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖) (ch. 4) was actually borrowed from the “Eastern Marchmount” (Dongyue, 東嶽; a.k.a. “Eastern Peak”), the god of Mt. Tai. This suggests that the older brother from the aforementioned zaju play is really the Eastern Marchmount.
  53. His time as the Guardian of the Immortal Peach Groves (ch. 5) is likely based on a Song-era Daoist scripture in which the aforementioned Sun Bin is tasked by his teacher, Master Ghost Valley, with protecting a tree laden with special fruit. He later captures a magic white ape stealing said produce (see section III here). The simian thief saves his life by offering Sun a set of secret religious texts. Both stories include: 1) a character surnamed Sun (孫) protecting special fruit (Sun Bin vs Sun Wukong); and 2) supernatural primates that steal and eat the fruit. Therefore, Monkey’s 1592 persona serves as both the guard and the thief!
  54. The elixir pills that he drunkenly eats in Laozi’s laboratory (ch. 5) likely influenced the senzu beans from the world famous Dragon Ball (Jp: Doragon Bōru,ドラゴンボール; Ch: Qilongzhu, 七龍珠) franchise.
  55. His conflict with Erlang (ch. 6) can be traced to ancient Han-era funerary rituals, and their battle of magic transformations shares parallels with ancient Greek tales and can ultimately be traced to even older stories from the Near East.
  56. His time in Laozi‘s furnace (ch. 7) is based on an episode from the aforementioned 13th-century version of JTTW. It may also be connected to a story of Laozi magically surviving a foreign king’s attempt to boil him in a cauldron.
  57. He is shown to be weak against spiritual fire and smoke (see the 06-28-22 update here).
  58. Smoke from the furnace irritates his eyes, giving him his famous “Fiery Eyes and Golden Pupils” (Huoyan jinjing, 火眼金睛). The former is likely based on the “actual red-rimmed eyes of [the Rhesus macaque]” (Burton, 2005, p. 148). The latter is likely based on the golden pupils of macaques (see section 2.1 here).
  59. The message that he leaves on the Buddha’s finger (ch. 7) is a popular form of graffiti in East Asia.
  60. His time under Five Elements Mountain (Wuxing shan, 五行山) (ch. 7) is based on stories of the aforementioned Wuzhiqi (無支奇/巫支祇) being imprisoned under a mountain by Yu the Great.
  61. He was pressed under the mountain during the late-Han Dynasty (202 BCE-220CE – see section II here).
  62. A religious precious scroll predating the 1592 edition states that Erlang instead traps Monkey beneath Mount Tai, and the aforementioned 15th-century zaju play states it was Guanyin and the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit.
  63. This punishment links him to a broader list of mythic baddies imprisoned in earth, including Lucifer, Loki, and the Titans of Tartarus. I plan to write a later article about “earth prisons” in world myth.
  64. One scholar suggests that being trapped under Five Elements Mountain is a symbolic death (remember that Monkey claims to be free of the Five Elements after attaining immortality), meaning that the hellish diet is his karmic punishment in the afterlife, and his later release is a symbolic reincarnation.
  65. Monkey’s mountain imprisonment was only part of his punishment. The other half was a hellish diet of hot iron pellets and molten copper, punishments straight from Buddhist canon.
  66. His golden headband (ch. 13) has three influences: 1) a historical ritual circlet worn as a physical reminder of right speech and action by Esoteric Buddhist yogins in ancient India; 2) adornments, likely based on stylized lingzhi mushrooms, worn by Daoist protector deities; and 3) an Iranic triple-crescent crown.
  67. The oldest depiction of Monkey with his headband that I know of appears in a late-Xixia (late-12th to early-13th-century) Buddhist cave grotto in Northwestern China.
  68. The earliest depiction of his double “curlicue-style” headband that I’m aware of is a 13th-century stone carving in Fujian.
  69. The secret spell that tightens his headband is likely the Akshobhya Buddha mantra.
  70. Along with the headband, his tiger skin kilt (ch. 13) can be traced to a list of ritual items prescribed for worshiping wrathful protector deities in Esoteric Indian Buddhism. These same ritual items came to be worn by the very protector deities that the yogins revered. This explains why some deities in Chinese folk religion (including Sun Wukong) are portrayed with the golden headband and tiger skin.

  71. Modern artists sometimes depict him with two long feathers protruding from the front of his golden headband, giving him the appearance of an insect. But the feathers (lingzi, 翎子) are actually associated with a different headdress called the “Purple Gold Cap” (zijin guan, 紫金冠), which is worn on top of the head. It was a military headdress later associated with heroes in Chinese opera (see section 2.2 here).
  72. Monkey is also shown to be weaker in water. For instance, he enlists Zhu Bajie to combat the water demon who turns out to be Sha Wujing (ch. 22) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. pp. 422-423).
  73. The baby-shaped fruit that he eats (ch. 24) comes from a tree based on Indo-Persian lore.
  74. He claims to have eaten people when he was a monster in his youth (ch. 27) (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 20).
  75. His greatest feat of strength is carrying two mountains while running at meteoric speeds (ch. 33). One is the axis mundi of the Hindo-Buddhist cosmos, while the other is the place from which (according to legend) Buddhism spread upon entering China. This episode is based on an older tale in which Erlang does the lifting.
  76. His doppelganger, the Six-Eared Macaque (ch. 56-58), is actually an aspect of his troubled mind. Once he kills him, Monkey takes one step closer to Buddhahood.
  77. He fights and is defeated by an ancient bird demon who is a spiritual uncle of the Buddha (ch. 77). This monster is based on the Hindu bird god Garuda.
  78. He and his religious brothers take human disciples in India (ch. 88), and Monkey later performs an arcane ritual in which he grants them superhuman strength (and possibly some form of immortality).
  79. His title, “Victorious Fighting Buddha” (Douzhan sheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛) (ch. 100), is based on a real world deity numbering among the “Thirty-Five Confession Buddhas“.
  80. The novel ranks him higher than Guanyin after his ascension (see the third quote here).
  81. As an enlightened Buddha, Monkey is eligible for his own “Buddha-Field” (Sk: Buddhakṣetra; Ch: Focha, 佛刹), essentially his own universe in which he will lead the inhabitants to enlightenment (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 153).
  82. Despite his association with the Victorious Fighting Buddha, he is primarily worshiped as the Great Sage Equaling Heaven in East and Southeast Asian Chinese folk religion.
  83. Fighters of the Boxer Rebellion (Yihetuan yundong, 義和團運動, 1899-1901) believed that they could channel the Monkey King to gain his great combat skills.
  84. Modern ritual specialists known as “spirit-mediums” (Hokkien: Tangki, 童乩; Ch: Jitong, 乩童; lit: “Divining Child”) also channel the Great Sage, allowing his worshipers to have direct access to the divine. While they may use a staff to enhance the theater of their performance, the weapon surprisingly doesn’t serve a ritual function. They instead use a set of bladed or spiked weapons to draw blood intended to create evil-warding paper talismans (see the material below figure six here).
  85. Chinese folk religion recognizes more than one Great Sage, usually between three and five individuals.
  86. Monkey’s faith started in Fujian province, China and spread via boat to other countries within the Chinese diaspora. When he first started being worshiped is unknown. The first concrete references to his worship come from the 17th-century (see section III here). But the aforementioned 13th-century stone carving depicts him as a wrathful guardian, alongside other protector deities, Bodhisattvas, patriarchs, and eminent monks. This suggests that he might have been revered at an earlier time.
  87. He was even worshiped in 19th-century America!
  88. The iconic pose where he shades his eyes to search the horizon is likely based on a common motif associated with Chinese sea gods.
  89. He has a number of religious birthdays, one of which is the 16th day of the 8th lunar month (the day after the Mid Autumn Festival).
  90. There is a style of Chinese boxing named after him, “Great Sage Boxing” (Cantonese: Taishing kyun; Mandarin: Dasheng quan, 大聖拳). Another closely associated style is “Great Sage Axe Boxing” (Can: Taishing pek kwar kyun; Man: Dasheng pigua quan, 劈掛拳). These arts also have staff styles associated with the Monkey King.
  91. His time in Laozi’s furnace and ability to grow 100,000 feet tall influenced a Shaolin Monastery myth related to the founding of their famous staff fighting method. The story describes how a lowly kitchen worker jumped into an oven and remerged as a staff-wielding titan to battle mountain brigands attacking the monastery (see section 3 here).
  92. Mao Zedong, the leader of the Chinese Communist Party, was a fan of the Monkey King, even associating himself with the character in his poetry. Also, a CCP propaganda play of the 1960s associates the scripture pilgrims with members of the Communist Party, with Monkey referencing Mao.
  93. He shares several connections with Yu the Great (here and here). These include: A) both have stone births; B) Monkey’s staff was originally used by Yu as a drill and as a ruler to set the depths of the fabled world flood; C) Sun’s demonic sister Wuzhiqi was conquered by Yu in some stories; and D) both are legendary hero-kings.
  94. He shares a number of similarities with Wu Song. These include: A) both are reformed supernatural spirits originally trapped under the pressing weight of a mountain; B) slayers of tigers; C) Buddhist monks nicknamed “Pilgrim” (xingzhe, 行者), a title noting junior and traveling monks, as well as untrained riffraff that became clerics to avoid trouble with the law or taxes and military service (Wu Song is the latter and Monkey the former); D) martial arts monks who fight with staves; E) have moralistic golden headbands; and F) weapons made from bin steel (bin tie, 鑌鐵) (Wu Song’s Buddhist sabers vs Monkey’s magic staff).

  95. He shares a surprising number of similarities with the Greek hero Heracles (a.k.a. Hercules). These include: A) supernatural births via masculine heavenly forces (son of Zeus vs the stone seeded by heaven); B) quick to anger; C) big cat skins (Nemean lion vs mountain tiger); D) fight with blunt weapons (olive wood club vs magic iron staff); E) great strength; F) knocked out by a god during a fit of rage (Athena with a rock vs Laozi and his Diamond-Cutter bracelet); G) given punishment to atone for past transgressions (12 labors for killing family vs protecting the monk for rebelling against heaven); H) constantly helped by goddesses (Athena vs Guanyin); I) similar enemies (there’s a long list); tamer of supernatural horses (Mares of Diomedes vs Heavenly Horses); J) travel to lands peopled by women (Amazons vs Kingdom of Women); K) theft of fruit from the gardens of queenly goddesses (Hera’s golden apples of the Hesperides vs the Queen Mother’s immortal peaches); L) travel to the underworld; M) take part in a heavenly war (Gigantomachy vs rebellion in heaven); N) become gods at the end of their stories (god of heroes and strength vs Victorious Fighting Buddha); and O) worshiped in the real world (Greece and Rome vs East and Southeast Asia).

  96. He time travels to different points in Chinese history in an unofficial 17th-century sequel to JTTW.
  97. He has a total of eight children between two 17th-century novels. He has five sons in A Supplement to the Journey to the West (Xiyoubu, 西遊補, 1640), but only one of them is mentioned by name. “King Pāramitā” (Boluomi wang, 波羅蜜王) is portrayed as a sword-wielding general capable of fighting Sun for several rounds. His name is based on a set of virtues learned by Bodhisattvas on their path to Buddhahood. In Journey to the South (Nanyouji, 南遊記) he has two sons named “Jidu” (奇都) and “Luohou” (羅猴), who respectively represent the lunar eclipse demons Ketu and Rahu from Indian astrology. He also has a giant, monstrous daughter, “Yuebei Xing” (月孛星, “Moon Comet Star”), who is named after a shadowy planet representing the lunar apogee (or the furthest spot in the moon’s orbit) in East Asian astrology. Only the daughter plays a part in the story. She uses a magic skull, which can kill immortals three days after their name is called.

  98. He influenced the manga/anime hero Son Goku (a Japanese transliteration of 孫悟空) from the Dragon Ball Franchise.
  99. He almost appeared in an Indiana Jones movie!
  100. He has appeared in both Marvel and DC comic book series.
  101. The world’s tallest statue of Monkey is 40 ft (12.192 m) tall and resides at the Broga Sak Dato Temple (武來岸玉封石哪督廟) in Malaysia.
  102. He is the mascot of several entities in Taiwan, including the HCT delivery company, the Hang Yuan FC football team, and the Taipei Water Department.
  103. He has appeared in nearly 65 video games.
  104. He is the namesake for a Chinese satellite designed to search for dark matter.
  105. He is the namesake of a fossa on Pluto. This plays on his association with the underworld.
  106. He is the namesake of the Wukongopterus (Wukong yilong shu, 悟空翼龍屬), a genus of Chinese pterosaur.

  107. He is the namesake of Syntelia sunwukong, a Synteliid beetle from mid-Cretaceous Burma.
  108. A Covid-19 lab in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China adopted the name “Fire Eyes” (Huoyan, 火眼) in honor of Monkey’s ability to discern evil spirits.

Sources:

Burton, F. D. (2005). Monkey King in China: Basis for a Conservation Policy? In A. Fuentes & L. D. Wolfe (Eds.), Primates Face to Face: Conservation Implications of Human-Nonhuman Primate Interconnections (pp. 137-162). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Buswell, R. E., & Lopez, D. S. (2014). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. N: Princeton University Press.

Campany, R. F. (1990). Return-from-Death Narratives in Early Medieval China. Journal of Chinese Religions, 18, pp. 91-125.

Campany, R. F., & Ge, H. (2002). To Live as Long as Heaven and Earth: A Translation and Study of Ge Hong’s Traditions of Divine Transcendents. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Campany, R. F. (2005). Living off the Books: Fifty Ways to Dodge Ming in Early Medieval China. In C. Lupke (Ed.), The Magnitude of Ming: Command, Allotment, and Fate in Chinese Culture (pp. 129-150), University of Hawaii Press.

Gansten, M. (2009). Navagrahas. In K. A. Jacobsen (Ed.), Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism (Vol. 1) (pp. 647-653). Leiden: Brill.

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The Journey to the West (Vols. 1-4). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Hercules vs Sun Wukong Death Battle Analysis

Last updated: 07-08-2022

DEATH BATTLE! is a youtube show that pits famous fictional and (now) mythological characters against one another to see who is the strongest. The outcome of each fight, usually ending in death, is supposedly based on research comparing the combatants’ respective canonical strengths and weaknesses. There are in total nine seasons with 161 episodes. The 162nd episode (episode 7 of season 9) will feature a battle between the hero Hercules from Greco-Roman myth and Sun Wukong from the Chinese Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592, JTTW hereafter) story cycle. I only learned about this upcoming fight a little over a week ago when I noticed via my website analytics that a DEATH BATTLE! staff member had linked to my research blog on their external site. Very little concrete information about the battle was released until a few days ago, so I’ve been scrambling to finish this article in preparation for the episode on June 20th, 2022. It can be watched here:

This may not seem very important to some of my followers and lurkers, but DEATH BATTLE! has 5.05 million subscribers, and their last video received 1.7 million views in just a week and the one before got 5 million in just 3 weeks! Therefore, the battle is likely to introduce many, many people to the Monkey King. For example, the primate hero’s fighter preview gained nearly 220,000 views in the first 24 hours, 260,000 as of June 18th, 2022. And as of the same date, Hercules’ fighter preview has 287,000 views.

Win or lose, the purpose of this article is to present accurate information about Sun Wukong. I will correct any mistakes that appear in the video. I will also present a list of surprising parallels shared between Hercules and Sun Wukong, suggesting that they might have been influenced by the same mythic tropes. See also my articles comparing Monkey with the Water Margin hero Wu Song and the historical Buddha.

Before continuing, I want to note that I know the original name is Heracles (or Herakles), but I will use Hercules throughout as this is the name chosen by the staff of DEATH BATTLE!

1. Analysis

1.1. The Death Battle

It’s official, Sun Wukong WON the fight. I will add my comments and corrections (in blue) to the official battle transcript:

An ancient scroll unfurls onscreen as a painted mountain manifests. An unseen narrator begins his story.

1. This was an interesting concept.

Muse: Our tale begins up top a great mountain, where the mighty Heracles sought a gift from the Gods.

As narrated, the legendary demigod finishes his trek up the mountain and calls out to the nearby Monkey King, Sun Wukong, who is sitting atop his Nimbus cloud and holding a divine fruit in his hand.

2. Just a tiny nitpick: The Nimbus cloud is not from JTTW but the Dragon Ball franchise. The novel refers to this skill as the Cloud-Somersault.

Hercules: Ho there! I’m in need of that apple. Relinquish it.

Wukong turns to face the hero and explains his own need for it.

Sun Wukong: Sorry, I’m supposed to find my master some vegetarian food.

3. I really like that the fight starts over fruit. As I note below (sec. 2, #12), both characters steal supernatural fruit (golden apples vs immortal peaches) from the gardens of queenly goddesses (Hera vs the Queen Mother of the West). So this was a nice nod to both myths.

But in hindsight, Monkey stealing the golden apples to feed his master doesn’t make much sense considering: 1) they are located in a land that’s much further west than the scripture monk’s final western destination, India; and 2) I don’t recall reading that the golden apples were anything other than treasures. To my knowledge, none of the associated myths treat them as foodstuff. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong.

However, the explanation is ignored. His short temper kicking in, Hercules draws his sword from its scabbard and threatens Wukong.

Hercules: You’ll find it… elsewhere.

With a shrug and groan of annoyance, Wukong passes the apple to Hercules, who catches it.

Muse: But Heracles was not so easily fooled.

4. Legitimate question: Is Hercules known for having supernatural perception? Are there examples of him seeing through illusions in his original mythos? If anyone knows, please leave a comment.

The hero’s satisfaction turns to indignation as he crushes the illusory fruit in his hand, revealing it to merely be strands of Wukong’s hair. With his scheme discovered, the trickster god pulls out a miniaturized Ruyi Jingu Bang from his ear and enlarges it to its standard size. Laughing with glee, he leaps from his cloud and clashes with Hercules’ sword,

5. Another tiny nitpick: The “standard size” in the animation was not large enough. The novel states that Monkey fights with the staff when it’s around 12 feet (3.65 m) long [1] and the width of a bowl (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 135, for example). [2] This illustration (fig. 1) shows how big the staff should be in relation to Sun’s body size.

Fig. 1 – Monkey and his religious brothers on patrol (larger version). Artwork by @真·迪绝人 (see here and here). Image found here.

Muse: The Monkey King’s strike rang true, but he’d not so easily overwhelm the God of Strength.

Locked in a clash of weapons, Hercules slashes at Wukong, who dissipates into smoke. The monkey flies behind Hercules on his Nimbus and jabs the hero in the gut with his staff, sending him flying into a cliff below. The mighty demigod is hardly phased though and springs back with a powerful dropkick against the advancing Wukong, sending them down another level.

6. I personally thought Monkey relied far too much on turning into a puff of smoke. I think he instead would have preferred to meet Hercules head-on.

As they both land, Hercules attempts to slash him with his sword once again, but Sun Wukong disappears in a smoke cloud and strikes Hercules with his Ruyi Jingu Bang. As Hercules lies on the ground, the Monkey King extends the staff and brings it down on the hero, who raises his sword to block the strike, only for the blade to shatter. Quickly recovering, Hercules grabs the Ruyi Jingu Bang and pulls on it, bringing Sun Wukong down to him.

Hercules: I am Heracles!

With a single mighty punch to the jaw, Heracles sent the Monkey King soaring through the sky, hitting the edge of the scroll and forcing it to go higher up before landing on a nearby cloud. Before the Monkey King has time to even breathe, Hercules shoots an arrow at him, only narrowly missing.

Sun Wukong: Yikes!

As the hero continues his assault, Wukong begins to jump through the clouds in order to avoid all of his shots, and after beginning to fly with one of them, summons several clones with his hairs to try and reach Hercules. However, the God of Strength manages to shoot down almost all of the clones. One of them climbs onto the cloud Wukong is riding and grabs his tail. Wukong spins him around and launches himself and the clone at Hercules. The Wukongs turn into birds to reach Hercules faster, before turning into snakes to restrict his arms. Tired of the monkey’s shenanigans, Hercules breaks free and grabs his rattles.

7. Legitimate question: Does Hercules have unlimited arrows? Please let me know.

Regarding the transformations, this seemed so out of place during the battle as Monkey never uses animal forms offensively. He instead uses them for stealth or, most famously, to hide from from an opponent

Hercules: Die, demon!

The loud noise echoes through the skies, destroying every single Wukong clone. Reeling in pain from the noise, Wukong’s snake transformation comes undone as he tumbles down the mountain into the forest below.

Sun Wukong: Agony, agony!

8. Why would the rattles have any effect on Monkey? I don’t recall his ears being a weakness

Update: 06-24-22

A redditor explained the following: “It’s not so much that Wukong is weak to sound, more so that the krotalas [rattles] are so loud that the noise causes pain to whatever hears them…”

But the original sources don’t make this claim. For example, the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius reads: 

“For not even could Heracles, when he came to Arcadia, drive away with bow and arrow the birds that swam on the Stymphalian lake. I saw it myself. But he shook in his hand a rattle of bronze and made a loud clatter as he stood upon a lofty peak, and the birds fled far off, screeching in bewildered fear” (2.1052).

The Bibliotheca Historica of Diodorus reads:

“Heracles then received a Command to drive the birds out of the Stymphalian Lake, and he easily accomplished the Labour by means of a device of art and by ingenuity. The lake abounded, it would appear, with a multitude of birds without telling, which destroyed the fruits of the country round-about. Now it was not possible to master the animals by force because of the exceptional multitude of them, and so the deed called for ingenuity in cleverly discovering some device. Consequently he fashioned a bronze rattle whereby he made a terrible noise and frightened the animals away, and furthermore, by maintaining a continual din, he easily forced them to abandon their siege of the place and cleansed the lake of them” (4.13.2).

And Pausanias writes:

“There is a story current about the water of the Stymphalus, that at one time man-eating birds bred on it, which Heracles is said to have shot down. Peisander of Camira, however, says that Heracles did not kill the birds, but drove them away with the noise of rattles” (8.22.4).

As can be seen, no mention is made of the implements being painfully loud to anything other than the birds (please provide an example if you know otherwise). While uncertain of the true reason why the rattles appear in the story, Aston (2021) posits that they could reference cultic practices or even just the “noisy rattle[s] or clapper[s] … used by farmers to scare birds from their crops (p. 102).

I can understand the rattles working if Monkey was still in bird form, but the clone attacking Hercules had already transformed into a snake at the point. And the rattle subsequently affects all of the clones. This doesn’t make any sense.

The scroll unfurls further, revealing the spot where the Monkey King landed, as he begins to laugh.

Muse: The Monkey King fell into a strange forest, in awe of such a wondrous fight. But should he mistake his fear, he might lose his head.

Hercules comes crashing down, instantly crushing Wukong’s head with his club. But to his shock, the beheaded body of the Great Sage gets right back up.

9. Crushing Monkey’s head would not be possible with the olive club, for it would break over his adamantine crown like when Hercules broke the weapon over the Nemean Lion‘s head (sec. 2, #3). Sun’s crown is one of the hardest parts of his body, easily taking direct blows from even sharp weapons wielded by demons with no issue (sec. 1.2, #3).

It think it would have made more sense for both heroes to have, at some point, exchanged blows with their respective blunt weapons (sec. 2, #4). But, again, the club wouldn’t have lasted long. This brings me back to my previous question about the number of Hercules’ arrows. If he ran out, then he would be weaponless after both his sword and club are destroyed.

So, I think at this point Sun would have placed his staff in his ear and offered to have a boxing match with the Greek hero. Something similar happens twice in JTTW. In chapter two, Monkey confronts a demon that had been terrorizing his children during his quest for immortality. But when the monster sees that the primate is not only small but also unarmed, he offers to fight him barehanded in order to avoid criticism from other demon kings. Sun ends up beating him so badly that the monster rushes to defend himself with his sword (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 128). And in chapter 51, another demon uses a powerful treasure stolen from heaven to take away Monkey’s staff, leading the latter to challenge the monster to unarmed combat to show that he isn’t useless without his weapon. A poem describing the subsequent battle states that the combatants use real-world punching and kicking techniques, many of which are known and still practiced today. And while said poem claims that they are equally matched, all of the heavenly commanders agree that Monkey’s technique is faster and more polished (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 12-14)

Seeing Hercules and Sun duke it out, causing the earth to shake and mountains crumble, would be much more entertaining than the latter’s game of hopscotch among the clouds from the video.

Sun Wukong: I haven’t had such fun since I fought all of Heaven! Change!

Wukong transforms into a taller, three-headed and six-armed version of himself, with three separate Ruyi Jingu Bangs included.

Sun Wukong: Behold me, the Immortal Monkey King!

Hercules stares at his opponent’s transformation and laments his misfortune.

Hercules: Huh… Multiple heads. Of course.

10. A nice nod to the Lernean Hydra.

Both warriors begin to trade blows, Hercules managing to avoid a few of Wukong’s strikes before being disarmed of his club and becoming a victim of a staff combo before being kicked away. He shoots out three more arrows at the Monkey King, which seemingly manage to damage him, before his three-headed form dissipates into smoke, and the real Wukong jumps right back up to the clouds, before sending out his staff to hit Hercules once more. The hero merely watches before the staff suddenly grows into an enormous size mere inches away from his face.

11. Monkey does indeed use deceptive magic doubles in battle. One example happens in chapter 4 during his fight with Prince Nezha

“They clashed like raindrops and meteors in the air, but victory or defeat was not yet determined. Wukong, however, proved to be the one swifter of eye and hand. Right in the midst of the confusion, he plucked a piece of hair and shouted, ‘Change!’ It changed into a copy of him, also wielding a rod in its hands and deceiving [Nezha]. His real person leaped behind [Nezha] and struck his left shoulder with the rod. [Nezha] … heard the rod whizzing through the air and tried desperately to dodge it. Unable to move quickly enough, he took the blow and fled in pain” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 156).

Hercules: Huh?

He is suddenly crushed underneath the Ruyi Jingu Bang as Wukong sits on top of it and laughs. But the staff suddenly begins to shake, as Hercules begins to lift it from underneath.

Hercules: You’ve had your fun, beast, but I’ve had enough!

Hercules throws the staff away, forcing Wukong to get off it before changing its size once more, and preparing to strike a finishing blow. Hercules sees this and charges towards the Monkey King, clashing with the staff with only his fist. But as the blows make contact, two blue, divine versions of the two warriors can be seen holding the scroll, before preparing their weapons for a clash of their own. The club of Hercules’ celestial body leaves a trail of constellations, while the celestial Ruyi Jingu Bang leaves a trail of names of Four Symbols written in Chinese in its wake.

Muse: The gods watched their earthbound selves, and so joined in battle. The God of Strength mustered the heart of Olympus, while the Great Sage harnessed power equal to Heaven! Thus…

The two celestial bodies swing at each other, with the force of the blows turning the screen a blinding white. Slowly, the light fades away to reveal that Hercules’ celestial body has been impaled by the Ruyi Jingu Bang. The scroll floats back into view, covering the screen once more.

12. I think I understand what the Death Battle staff was going for when they portrayed each character in their celestial form. But this contradicts their promise to not use the heroes’ post-apotheosic versions. Therefore, this also seemed extremely out of place during the fight.

Muse: The Monkey King emerged victorious!

Returning back inside the scroll, Wukong’s attack manages to overpower Hercules, and its might destroys the God of Strength leaving nothing behind.

Sun Wukong: Wow, would you look at that! I struck him so hard he was reduced to nothingness!

13. I think this would have only killed Hercules’ mortal half, releasing the god within and prolonging the fight. While sources vary on what caused his apotheosis (virtus vs the 12 Labors vs Gigantomachy deeds), it’s clear that the son of Zeus become a god upon his fiery death (Romero-Gonzalez, 2021, p. 275).

Wukong laughs once more and grabs the apple, leaving the forest to rejoin his master.

Muse: With a formidable foe slain, stricken against the mountain’s breast, so ends our great tale of East and West.

14. I was honestly underwhelmed by the ending. It seemed like the staff ran out of time, money, or interest and decided to stop the episode prematurely. It should have gone on much longer since Hercules and Sun Wukong are the first two mythological characters to be featured. I also thought Hercules was splattered way too easily. I’m sure there could have been a different way to end the fight. It would have been more respectful to both pantheons if the heroes had simply come to a draw and, having developed a newfound respect for each other’s skills, parted as bond brothers.

But considering that the show is called “Death Battle!”, somebody needs to die (the fans would otherwise be upset). So, baring that in mind, I thought of an idea five days before the episode aired, but I must admit that it’s not very respectful to the Greek hero. In my scenario, Sun seemingly disappears, but he actually turns into an insect and flies into Hercules’ mouth and crawls into his stomach. There, Monkey beats him up from the inside using the iron staff or even his fists. Then he instantly takes on his 100,000 foot (30,480 m) tall cosmic form, causing Hercules’ mortal body to explode. This “attack from within” tactic appears in chapters 59, 75, and 82 of JTTW, [3] as well as chapter 11 of the late-13th-century version of the story cycle

Lasty, I didn’t think the sprite animation was appropriate for such a mythic showdown. I personally would have liked more dynamic, hand-drawn animation like that from the Omni-man vs Homelander episode.

Update: 06-24-22

The same redditor from above also explained that the show apparently has budgetary constraints on episode length and art style. This explains the seemingly abrupt ending and the sprite animation. Hand drawn animation is apparently only reserved for the very tip of the top-most requested matchups.

This still doesn’t change my opinion, though. This was their first battle between extremely famous mythological characters. The fight should have been more grand.

But this information still doesn’t change my opinion of the episode. Rooster Teeth should have allotted a larger budget and made the episode longer.

1.2. The Results

I will do the same for the official fight result transcript:

Boomstick: Talking about a herculean matchup.

Wiz: Heracles was among the greatest heroes in myth, but the Great Sage Equal to Heaven held many more advantages.

Boomstick: You’d think Sun might not measure up to the God of Strength… you know, strength, but he totally could. remember he carried Sumeru on his back, the mountain holding up the infinite celestial sky, like how Heracles held up the infinite celestial sphere.

1. The Death Battle researchers likely learned about this feat from my article. But nowhere do I write that the mountain upheld the sky. The Abhidharmakośa (Ch: Api damo jushe lun, 阿毗達磨俱舍論, 4th to 5th-century) contains an overview of the Hindo-Buddhist cosmos, and it states that the sun, moon, and stars orbit half way down the exposed portion of the mountain [4] in a whirlpool-like ring of wind (Vasubandhu, 2014, pp. 460; Sadakata, 1997, p. 38-40). But the source doesn’t associate this ring with any weight.

Conversely, native Chinese mythology views the sky as a solid object that must be propped up by mountains. And if one of these earthly pillars is damage, it will cause the sky to tilt and even tear, requiring divine repair. See, for example, the legend of Nuwa mending the sky (Birrell, 1999, pp. 69-72 and 96-97). But this has no baring on the discussion at hand as Journey to the West expressly describes the world according to Hindo-Buddhist cosmic geography.

Therefore, Sun’s feat should be scaled accordingly. But I’m not sure how this would be possible as the Buddhist and Greek concepts of the sky appear to be fundamentally different. I’ll have to read more on the latter concept to be sure.

Update: 06-25-22

I was contacted by a reader who said that the episode’s Sun Wukong researcher responded to me on the Death Battle discord, stating:

“To clarify, the basis for what Sumeru supports comes from the Buddhist cosmology lectures sourced in the character sheet. Though the article Jim wrote was what made me initially take note of the feat.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6agAavZTEK0

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UMQeFiwacbQ” (per a screenshot emailed to me). 

But I’ve watched the videos and they don’t contradict what I wrote. The problem is that the researcher didn’t make a distinction between the “sky” (as stated in the Death Battle video) and “heaven”. I’ve already described the wind ring in which the celestial bodies orbit the midpoint of Mt. Sumeru. So, now I will give a brief and very simplified overview of the Buddhist cosmos to help readers form a better picture of what I’m arguing. As the axis mundi, Mt. Sumeru is located at the center of our earthly realm, with a ring of seven smaller mountains circling it. This landmass is surrounded by four island-like continents, one for each face of Sumeru, that float in a great sea resting on a disc of golden earth (kāñcanamaṇḍala). This is then supported by a disc of water (jalamaṇḍala) and finally a disc of wind (vāyumaṇḍala), each layer generally becoming larger as one descends. This grand creation is thought to float in “space” (ākāśa) (Sadakata, 1997, pp. 25-30), sometimes translated as “sky” (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 26). There are indeed various layers of heavens on and above Mt. Sumeru, but they appear to be separate from this space/sky (fig. 2). The first two heavens, that of the Four Great Kings and the 33 Gods, are respectively located at the midpoint and summit of Mt. Sumeru. But the following four heavens float above it at varying heights (fig. 3) (Sadakata, 1997, pp. 56-62). Therefore, by running with Mt. Sumeru on one shoulder (and Mt. Emei on the other), Monkey would have supported both the landmass and the two earthly heavens, a monumental task to be sure. But he doesn’t support the four floating heavens above or, most importantly, the space/sky that they are located in. 

Having written the above, I want to note that I’m not claiming Hercules’ feat is stronger by default. I just want to present accurate information. I will at some point post an update with info about ancient Greek concepts of the sky.

Fig. 2 – A diagram of the Buddhist cosmos by MC Owens (larger version). Image from this talk. It’s the most simplistic, eye-catching version I’ve seen. The column of red, blue, and purple rings on the bottom represent the various layers of Hell. Fig. 3 – A diagram of the various heavens on and above Mt. Sumeru (larger version). From Sadakata, 1997, p. 60.

Wiz: As befitting heroes of myth they were on par in that they were both incomprehensibly strong, however, Wukong’s healing abilities meant he could bounce back from Heracles deadliest blows, whereas Heracles did not have a similar option.

Boomstick: But Heracles did have one way of putting the Monkey King down, his arrows dipped in hydra poison.

Wiz: The hydra poison threatened even the gods of Olympus, similar to the scorpion sting. Whether or not it would be fatal is questionable but it could have incapacitated Wukong, similar to how it affected Heracles himself.

2. The novel presents concepts with elemental states beyond heaven and earth. A prime example is Red Boy‘s Samādhi fire, which is considered more powerful than normal or even divine flames. [5] Likewise, the scorpion’s “horse-felling poison” (daoma du, 倒馬毒) likely falls into this separate category, for it was able to hurt even the Buddha! The bodhisattva Guanyin explains:

“Once upon a time she [the scorpion] happened to be listening to a lecture in the Thunderclap Monastery. When Tathagata saw her, he wanted to push her away with his hand, but she turned around and gave the left thumb of the Buddha a stab. Even Tathagata found the pain unbearable!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 72).

The aforementioned monastery is located in the Western Paradise. This suggests that she might have been imbued with “dharma power” [6] over a certain period of time, making her a super powerful foe. Even the bodhisattva Guanyin fears her sting (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 72). 

I conjecture that the scorpion’s sting may be stronger than the hydra’s heavenly poison. [7] Therefore, I question if the latter would have the same effect on the Monkey King.

Boomstick: But that is one very specific win condition and we’re looking at this with every possible option in mind.

Wiz: With his variety of clones, transformations and numerous other spells, Wukong’s arsenal was far more versatile.

Boomstick: Like, there was nothing stopping him from making thousands of clones of himself and just sitting back, while they beat up Herc for him. Unsporting been like? Sure. In character? Absolutely.

Wiz: Even then, those arrows would have to actually strike Wukong, which would be extremely difficult. Yes, in some depictions Heracles could potentially shoot the sun of Helios, his arrows flying 90 times the speed of light. However, in his contest with the Buddha, Wukong leap to the edge of the universe in a single second. To do so he had to be moving over 1.4 quintillion times faster than light.

3. But even if the hydra venom was equally potent, there is no guarantee that Hercules’ arrows could pierce Sun’s adamantine hide. The novel is clear that Monkey’s frame is nearly indestructible. For instance, upon his capture, heaven fails to execute him:

“They then slashed him with a scimitar, hewed him with an ax, stabbed him with a spear, and hacked him with a sword, but they could not hurt his body in any way. Next, the Star Spirit of the South Pole ordered the various deities of the Fire Department to burn him with fire, but that, too, had little effect. The gods of the Thunder Department were then ordered to strike him with thunderbolts [lei xie ding, 雷屑釘, lit: “nails of thunder”], but not a single one of his hairs was destroyed”. (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 188).

This invincibility follows him throughout the novel. For example, in chapter 75, Sun agrees to a demon lord’s offer to set the monk free if he can survive a blow to his head with a scimitar:

“‘When he heard this, Pilgrim smiled and said, ‘Fiend! If you have brush and paper in your cave, take them out and I’ll sign a contract with you. You can start delivering your blows from today until next year, and I won’t regard you seriously!’ Arousing his spirit, the old demon stood firmly with one foot placed in front of the other. He lifted up his scimitar with both hands and brought it down hard on the head of the Great Sage. Our Great Sage, however, jerked his head upward to meet the blow. All they heard was a loud crack, but the skin on the head did not even redden” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 373).

Someone may argue that the scorpion’s sting pierced his face, but refer back to what I wrote about dharma power in comment #2, and see also note #6 below.

Also, the Death Battle crew lists astronomically large numbers without explaining how the figures were calculated (I make the same critic of the G1 Death Battle Fan Blog in my 06-19-22 update). These figures mean absolutely nothing without some sort of explanation.

But since the numbers are used in reference to Monkey’s feat of leaping out of the Buddha’s palm, I want to explain its significance for those who don’t understand (per this reddit post). Sadakata (1997) writes: “[Sun’s feat] reflects the world of the Flower Garland Sutra, where every phenomenon is located within the buddha-world” (p. 155). He goes on to discuss the Cosmic Buddha Vairochana, noting how Buddhist art from all over the world depicts the myriad Buddhas as his emanations. One Javanese example features images of the Five Dhyani Buddhas encircling a stupa dedicated to Vairochana, thereby “express[ing] the Mahayana idea that the buddhas emanate from Mahavairocana and penetrate the universe, that the ‘one’ is at the same time the ‘many'” (Sadakata, 1997, pp. 156-157). Therefore, in essence, the Buddha’s palm in the novel represents the universe.  

Update: 06-25-22

Another redditor wrote:

“[T]he Hydra venom doesn’t need to ‘pierce’ your body to make effect, it just needs to have skin contact, referring to the time Hercules died because he was tricked into using a robe with some hydra venom on it”.

I responded:

“I’m aware of how Hercules dies, but there’s still the question of whether or not the venom would be absorbed into Sun Wukong’s nearly indestructible skin. I don’t recall any similar episode where a substance is absorbed through his skin in JTTW. So assuming that it could is not the same as citing evidence that it would. I’m not trying to split hairs. I’m just a stickler for details”.

But I will concede that artistic license and the need to raise the stakes of the battle could warrant the venom effecting him even if the arrows can’t penetrate his skin. 

Boomstick: Making him way faster than Herc could ever hope to be.

Wiz: Heracles held might of mythic proportions, but barring a lucky shot. Sun Wukong’s versatile magic, similar strength and absolutely absurd speed overcame this foe fitting for heaven’s equal.

Boomstick: When fighting Sun Wukong, Heracles mythed his chance.

Wiz: The winner is the Monkey King, Sun Wukong.

2. List of Parallels

(As of 07-03-22, I’ve added more quotes and similarities. The total stands at 16.)

Here is a list of parallels shared by Hercules/Herakles and Sun Wukong. I noticed several of these myself, but I am also indebted to the similarities posted on the DEATH BATTLE! Wiki.

1) Origins – Both are born of masculine heavenly forces. Hercules is the half-human son of ZeusHesiod‘s Shield of Heracles reads:

But the father of men and gods [Zeus] wove another design in his mind, how he might fashion for gods and wheat-eating men a protector against disaster. He arose from Olympos by night, pondering a deception in his spirit, longing for sex with a fine-waisted woman. Quickly he came to Typhaonion, and from there Zeus the Counselor trod the peak of Mount Phikion. Taking his seat, he planned wondrous deeds in his heart. On that very night he slept with the slender-ankled daughter of Elektryon [Alkmene]; he fulfilled his desire […] She bore him [Herakles] by submitting to the son
of Kronos, lord of the dark clouds (Hesiod & Powell, 2017, p. 153 and 154; see also Pache, 2021).

The Monkey King is born from a stone seeded by heavenly energies. Chapter one of JTTW reads:

Since the creation of the world, it [the stone] had been nourished for a long period by the seeds of Heaven and Earth and by the essences of the sun and the moon, until, quickened by divine inspiration, it became pregnant with a divine embryo. One day, it split open, giving birth to a stone egg about the size of a playing ball. Exposed to the wind, it was transformed into a stone monkey endowed with fully developed features and limbs (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 101).

Hinsch (2011) explains that Chinese works as far back as the Eastern Zhou and Han considered heaven masculine and described it as the father/husband/superior of the feminine earth, the mother/wife/inferior (pp. 157-158).

2) Temper – Both are quick to anger. In his youth, Hercules killed his music teacher for punishing him. The Bibliotheca Historica of Diodorus reads:

Linus [of Thrace] also, who was admired because of his poetry and singing, had many pupils and three of greatest renown, Heracles, Thamyras, and Orpheus. Of these three Heracles, who was learning to play the lyre, was unable to appreciate what was taught him because of his sluggishness of soul, and once when he had been punished with rods by Linus he became violently angry and killed his teacher with a blow of the lyre (3.67.2; Pache, 2021, p. 10).

Sun pushes over a magical, one-of-a-kind Ginseng Tree (Renshen shu, 人參樹) in retaliation for verbal abuse at the hands of some immortal youths. Chapter 25 of JTTW reads:

When the immortal lads found out the truth, they became even more abusive in their language; the Great Sage became so enraged that he ground his steel-like teeth audibly and opened wide his fiery eyes. He gripped his golden-hooped rod again and again, struggling to restrain himself and saying to himself, “These malicious youths! They certainly know how to give people a lashing with their tongues! All right, so I have to take such abuse from them. Let me offer them in return a plan for eliminating posterity: and none of them will have any more fruit to eat!” Dear Pilgrim! He pulled off a strand of hair behind his head and blew on it with his magic breath, crying “Change!” It changed at once into a specious Pilgrim, standing by the Tang Monk, Wujing, and Wuneng to receive the scolding from the Daoist lads. His true spirit rose into the clouds, and with one leap he arrived at the ginseng garden. Whipping out his golden-hooped rod, he gave the tree a terrific blow, after which he used that mountain-moving divine strength of his to give it a mighty shove (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 465-466).

3) Skins – Both wear the skins of big cats. Hercules wears the skin of the Nemean Lion. TheocritusIdylls (25) reads:

The fight ended, I fell to pondering how I could strip the shaggy hide from the dead brute’s limbs—a troublesome task indeed, for when I tried, I could not cut it either with iron or with stone or [otherhow]. But then some god put in my mind the thought to sever the lion’s skin with his own claws; and with these I flayed it speedily and wrapped it about my body to guard me from the rents and hurts of war (Theocritus & Gow, 1952, p. 213; see also March, 2021).

Monkey wears the skin of a mountain tiger. Chapter 14 of JTTW reads:

He [Sun] pulled off one strand of hair and blew a mouthful of magic breath onto it, crying, “Change!” It changed into a sharp, curved knife, with which he ripped open the tiger’s chest. Slitting the skin straight down, he then ripped it off in one piece. He chopped away the paws and the head, cutting the skin into one square piece. He picked it up and tried it for size, and then said, “It’s a bit too large; one piece can be made into two.” He took the knife and cut it again into two pieces; he put one of these away and wrapped the other around his waist. Ripping off a strand of rattan from the side of the road, he firmly tied on this covering for the lower part of his body (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 310).

4) Weapons – Both are knowledgeable in multiple armaments but often wield blunt weapons in their adventures. Hercules uses an olive wood club (I’m unsure if it has an actual name). Theocritus’ Idylls (25) reads:

I set forth, taking my pliant bow, a hallow quiver filled with arrows, and in my other hand a club, made from a spreading wild olive, close-grained, with bark and pith intact, which I had found under holy Helicon and had pulled up entire with all it’s tangle of roots.

[…]

And I, holding in front of me with one hand my arrows … with the other raised my seasoned club over my head and brought it down on [the lion’s] skull; and full on the shaggy head of that invincible brute I broke the tough olive clean in two (Theocritus & Gow, 1952, p. 209 and 211).

Sun uses a black iron staff. Chapter three of JTTW reads:

[After a magic iron pillar followed his wish to shrink] He found a golden hoop at each end, with solid black iron in between. Immediately adjacent to one of the hoops was the inscription, “As-You-Will Gold-Banded Staff. Weight: Thirteen Thousand Five Hundred Catties” [Ruyi jingu bang zhong yiwan sanqian wubai jin如意金箍棒重一萬三千五百斤]” [8] … See how he displayed his power now! He wielded the rod to make lunges and passes, engaging in mock combat all the way back to the Water-Crystal Palace. The old Dragon King was so terrified that he shook with fear, and the dragon princes were all panic-stricken (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 135).

5) Strength – Both are immensely strong. Hercules (in one version of the myth) holds up the sky. The Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus reads:

Now Prometheus had told Hercules not to go himself after the apples but to send Atlas, first relieving him of the burden of the sphere; so when he was come to Atlas in the land of the Hyperboreans, he took the advice and relieved Atlas. But when Atlas had received three apples from the Hesperides, he came to Hercules, and not wishing to support the sphere<he said that he would himself carry the apples to Eurystheus, and bade Hercules hold up the sky in his stead. Hercules promised to do so, but succeeded by craft in putting it on Atlas instead. For at the advice of Prometheus he begged Atlas to hold up the sky till he should> put a pad on his head [fig. 2]. When Atlas heard that, he laid the apples down on the ground and took the sphere from Hercules (2.5.11; see also Salapata, 2021).

Fig. 2 – A lovely Olympian Temple of Zeus metopes portraying Hercules (middle) resting the uplifted sky on his cushioned back. Athena (left) aids him in this task. Atlas (right) is shown with the golden apples (larger version). Image found on Wikipedia.

Monkey runs at great speed while bearing the weight of two mountains on his shoulders, one of which is the axis mundi of the Hindo-Buddhist cosmos and the abode of the gods. Chapter 33 of JTTW reads:

Knowing how to summon mountains, he [a demon being carried by Sun] resorted to the magic of Moving Mountains and Pouring Out Oceans. On Pilgrim’s [Monkey] back he made the magic sign with his fingers and recited a spell, sending the Sumeru Mountain into midair and causing it to descend directly on Pilgrim’s head. A little startled, the Great Sage bent his head to one side and the mountain landed on his left shoulder. Laughing, he said, “My child, what sort of press-body magic are you using to pin down old Monkey? This is all right, but a lopsided pole is rather difficult to carry.”

The demon said to himself, “One mountain can’t hold him down.” He recited a spell once more and summoned the Emei Mountain into the air. Pilgrim again turned his head and the mountain landed on his right shoulder. Look at him! Carrying two mountains, he began to give chase to his master with the speed of a meteor! The sight of him caused the old demon to perspire all over, muttering to himself, “He truly knows how to pole mountains!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, pp. 108-109).

6) Submission – Both are subdued with a blow by deities. Hercules is knocked out with a rock by Athena during his murderous rage. EuripidesHeracles reads:

Then in wild gallop he starts to slay his aged father; but there came a phantom [Athena], as it seemed to us on-lookers, of Pallas, with plumed helm, brandishing a spear; and she hurled a rock against the breast of Heracles, which held him from his frenzied thirst for blood and plunged him into sleep (1000-1006).

Sun is dazed by Laozi‘s magic bracelet during his rebellion, allowing the primate to be captured by heaven. Chapter six of JTTW reads:

[Laozi] rolled up his sleeve and took down from his left arm an armlet, saying, “This is a weapon made of red steel, brought into existence during my preparation of elixir and fully charged with theurgical forces. It can be made to transform at will; indestructible by fire or water, it can entrap many things. It’s called the diamond cutter or the diamond snare … After saying this, Laozi hurled the snare down from the Heaven Gate; it went tumbling down into the battlefield at the Flower-Fruit Mountain and landed smack on the Monkey King’s head. The Monkey King was engaged in a bitter struggle with the Seven Sages and was completely unaware of this weapon, which had dropped from the sky and hit him on the crown of his head. No longer able to stand on his feet, he toppled over (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 186).

7) Punishment – Both are given difficult tasks in order to atone for past transgressions. For killing his family, Hercules is tasked with serving King Eurystheus and completing the 12 Labors. The Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus reads:

Now it came to pass that after the battle with the Minyans Hercules was driven mad through the jealousy of Hera and flung his own children, whom he had by Megara, and two children of Iphicles into the fire; wherefore he condemned himself to exile, and was purified by Thespius, and repairing to Delphi he inquired of the god where he should dwell. The Pythian priestess then first called him Hercules, for hitherto he was called Alcides. And she told him to dwell in Tiryns, serving Eurystheus for twelve years and to perform the ten [plus two] labours imposed on him, and so, she said, when the tasks were accomplished, he would be immortal (2.4.12; see also Hsu, 2021).

Monkey is directed to guard the Buddhist monk Tripitaka for rebelling against heaven. Chapter eight of JTTW reads:

Tathagata deceived me,” said the Great Sage, “and imprisoned me beneath this mountain. For over five hundred years already I have not been able to move. I implore the Bodhisattva to show a little mercy and rescue old Monkey!” “Your sinful karma is very deep,” said the Bodhisattva. “If I rescue you, I fear that you will again perpetrate violence, and that will be bad indeed.” “Now I know the meaning of penitence,” said the Great Sage. “So I entreat the Great Compassion to show me the proper path, for I am willing to practice cultivation.”

[…]

“If you have such a purpose, wait until I reach the Great Tang Nation in the Land of the East [China] and find the scripture pilgrim. He will be told to come and rescue you, and you can follow him as a disciple. You shall keep the teachings and hold the rosary to enter our gate of Buddha, so that you may again cultivate the fruits of righteousness. Will you do that?” ”I’m willing, I’m willing,” said the Great Sage repeatedly (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 215).

8) Heavenly aid – Both are aided by goddesses. Hercules is helped by Athena. For example, Homer‘s Illiad reads”

[B]ut my [Athena] father Zeus is mad with spleen, ever foiling me, ever headstrong and unjust. He forgets how often I saved his son [Hercules] when he was worn out by the labors Eurystheus had laid on him. He would weep till his cry came up to heaven, and then Zeus would send me down to help him; if I had had the sense to foresee all this, when Eurystheus sent him to the house of Hades, to fetch the hell-hound from Erebos, he would never have come back alive out of the deep waters of the river Styx (8.366; See also Deacy, 2021).

Sun is helped by the Bodhisattva Guanyin. For example, the goddess tells him the following in chapter 15 of JTTW:

If on your journey you should come across any danger that threatens your life, I give you permission to call on Heaven, and Heaven will respond; to call on Earth, and Earth will prove efficacious. In the event of extreme difficulty, I myself will come to rescue you. Come closer, and I shall endow you with one more means of power.” Plucking three leaves from her willow branch, the Bodhisattva placed them at the back of Pilgrim’s head, crying, “Change!” They changed at once into three hairs with lifesaving power. She said to him: “When you find yourself in a helpless and hopeless situation, you may use these according to your needs, and they will deliver you from your particular affliction.” After Pilgrim had heard all these kind words, he thanked the Bodhisattva of Great Mercy and Compassion. With scented wind and colored mists swirling around her, the Bodhisattva returned to Potalaka (Wu & Yu, 2012, pp. 328-329).

9) Enemies – Both face similar enemies: A) supernatural lions (Nemean Lion vs Lion demon); B) opponents that regrow their heads once severed but are eventually defeated with fire (Lernaean Hydra vs Bull Demon King); C) supernatural deer (Ceryneian Hind vs Great Immortal Deer Strength); D) supernatural boars (Erymanthian Boar vs Zhu Bajie); E) supernatural birds (Stymphalian birds vs Great Peng of 10,000 Cloudy Miles); and F) supernatural bulls (Cretan Bull vs Bull Demon King).

10) Horses – Both tame supernatural horses. Hercules tames the man-eating Mares of Diomedes. The Bibliotheca Historica of Diodorus reads:

The next Labour which Heracles undertook was the bringing back of the horses of Diomedes, the Thracian. The feeding-troughs of those horses were of brass because the steeds were so savage, and they were fastened by iron chains because of their strength, and the food they ate was not the natural produce of the soil but they tore apart the limbs of strangers and so got their food from the ill lot of hapless men. Heracles, in order to control them, threw to them their master Diomedes, and when he had satisfied the hunger of the animals by means of the flesh of the man who had taught them to violate human law in this fashion, he had them under his control (4.15.3; see also Ogden, 2021b).

Monkey serves as the Keeper of the Heavenly Horses. Chapter four of JTTW reads:

Never resting, the [Sun] oversaw the care of the horses, fussing with them by day and watching over them diligently by night. Those horses that wanted to sleep were stirred up and fed; those that wanted to gallop were caught and placed in the stalls. When the celestial horses saw him, they all behaved most properly and they were so well cared for that their flanks became swollen with fat (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 149).

11) Women lands – Both visit locations peopled entirely by women. Hercules visits the Amazons to get the heavenly war belt (zoster) of their Queen Hippolyte. The Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus reads:

The ninth labour he [Eurystheus] enjoined on Hercules was to bring the belt of Hippolyte. She was queen of the Amazons, who dwelt about the river Thermodon, a people great in war; for they cultivated the manly virtues, and if ever they gave birth to children through intercourse with the other sex, they reared the females; and they pinched off the right breasts that they might not be trammelled by them in throwing the javelin, but they kept the left breasts, that they might suckle. Now Hippolyte had the belt of Ares in token of her superiority to all the rest. Hercules was sent to fetch this belt because Admete, daughter of Eurystheus, desired to get it. So taking with him a band of volunteer comrades in a single ship he set sail …

[After taking part in a small war elsewhere, Hercules finally arrived at his destination]

… Having put in at the harbor of Themiscyra, he received a visit from Hippolyte, who inquired why he was come, and promised to give him the belt. But Hera in the likeness of an Amazon went up and down the multitude saying that the strangers who had arrived were carrying off the queen. So the Amazons in arms charged on horseback down on the ship. But when Hercules saw them in arms, he suspected treachery, and killing Hippolyte stripped her of her belt. And after fighting the rest he sailed away and touched at Troy (2.5.9; see also Mayor, 2021).

Monkey and the other pilgrims travel through the “Woman Kingdom of Western Liang” (Xiliang nuguo, 西梁女國) in chapter 53 on their way to India (both Tripitaka and Zhu Bajie become pregnant from drinking magic water while there). In chapter 54, the group enters the capital in order to have their travel rescript signed by the queen, but she has other plans for the head monk:

The queen said, “This man from the Land of the East [China] is a royal brother of the Tang court. In our country, the rulers of various generations since the time when chaos divided had never seen a man come here. Now the royal brother of the Tang emperor has arrived, and he must be a gift from Heaven. We will use the wealth of an entire nation to ask this royal brother to be king; we are willing to be his queen. Such a sexual union will produce children and grandchildren, and the perpetuity of our kingdom will be assured (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 49).

Sun helps arrange the marriage with the veiled purpose of ensuring that their travel rescript is signed (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 52-53).

12) Theft of fruit – Both steal supernatural fruit from the gardens of queenly goddesses. Hercules (in one version of the myth) steals Queen Hera‘s Golden Apples of the Hesperides. The Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus reads:

But some say that he did not get them from Atlas, but that he plucked the apples himself after killing the guardian snake. And having brought the apples he gave them to Eurystheus. But he, on receiving them, bestowed them on Hercules, from whom Athena got them and conveyed them back again; for it was not lawful that they should be laid down anywhere (2.5.11; see also Salapata, 2021).

Monkey steals the Queen Mother‘s immortal peaches. Chapter five of JTTW reads:

One day he saw that more than half of the peaches on the branches of the older trees had ripened, and he wanted very much to eat one and sample its novel taste. Closely followed, however, by the local spirit of the garden, the stewards, and the divine attendants of the Equal to Heaven Residence, he found it inconvenient to do so. He therefore devised a plan on the spur of the moment and said to them, “Why don’t you all wait for me outside and let me rest a while in this arbor?” The various immortals withdrew accordingly. That Monkey King then took off his cap and robe and climbed up onto a big tree. He selected the large peaches that were thoroughly ripened and, plucking many of them, ate to his heart’s content right on the branches. Only after he had his fill did he jump down from the tree. Pinning back his cap and donning his robe, he called for his train of followers to return to the residence. After two or three days, he used the same device to steal peaches to gratify himself once again (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 162).

13) Underworld – Both travel to the land of the dead. Hercules goes to Hades to acquire Cerberus. The Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus reads:

A twelfth labour imposed on Hercules was to bring Cerberus from Hades. Now this Cerberus had three heads of dogs, the tail of a dragon, and on his back the heads of all sorts of snakes. When Hercules was about to depart to fetch him, he went to Eumolpus at Eleusis, wishing to be initiated … [He sought ritual purification for his past misdeeds] … And having come to Taenarum in Laconia, where is the mouth of the descent to Hades, he descended through it … [He fended off the empty attacks of shades, rescued Theseus, sated the various ghosts with blood, and won a wrestling match against Menoetes] …When Hercules asked Pluto for Cerberus, Pluto ordered him to take the animal provided he mastered him without the use of the weapons which he carried. Hercules found him at the gates of Acheron, and, cased in his cuirass and covered by the lion’s skin, he flung his arms round the head of the brute, and though the dragon in its tail bit him, he never relaxed his grip and pressure till it yielded. So he carried it off and ascended through Troezen … [A]nd Hercules, after showing Cerberus to Eurystheus, carried him back to Hades (2.5.12; see also Hanesworth, 2021).

Sun travels to the Land of Darkness at least twice. For instance, in chapter 97, he goes to the underworld to retrieve the spirit of a recently deceased benefactor:

With a series of cloud somersaults, that Great Sage went to the Region Below and crashed right into the Hall of Darkness … Pilgrim said, “Which one of you took away the soul of Kou Hong, the person who fed the monks in the Numinous Earth District of the Bronze Estrade Prefecture? Find out instantly and bring him to me.”

[…]

[After being led out] Kou Hong, who, on seeing Pilgrim, cried out, “Master! Master! Save me!” “You were kicked to death by a robber,” said Pilgrim. “This is the place of the Bodhisattva King Kṣitigarbha in the Region of Darkness. Old Monkey has come especially to take you back to the world of light so that you may give your testimony. The Bodhisattva is kind enough to release you and lengthen your age for another dozen years. Thereafter you’ll return here.” The squire bowed again and again.

Having thanked the Bodhisattva, Pilgrim changed the soul of the squire into ether by blowing on him. The ether was stored in his sleeve so that they could leave the house of darkness and go back to the world of light together. Astride the clouds, he soon arrived at the Kou house (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, pp. 338-339).

14) Heavenly war – Both take part in battles with heaven but on opposing sides. Hercules fights alongside the Olympian gods during the Gigantomachy. The Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus reads:

But Earth, vexed on account of the Titans, brought forth the giants, whom she had by Sky. These were matchless in the bulk of their bodies and invincible in their might; terrible of aspect did they appear, with long locks drooping from their head and chin, and with the scales of dragons for feet. They were born, as some say, in Phlegrae, but according to others in Pallene. And they darted rocks and burning oaks at the sky. Surpassing all the rest were Porphyrion and Alcyoneus, who was even immortal so long as he fought in the land of his birth. He also drove away the cows of the Sun from Erythia. Now the gods had an oracle that none of the giants could perish at the hand of gods, but that with the help of a mortal they would be made an end of. Learning of this, Earth sought for a simple to prevent the giants from being destroyed even by a mortal. But Zeus forbade the Dawn and the Moon and the Sun to shine, and then, before anybody else could get it, he culled the simple himself, and by means of Athena summoned Hercules to his help. Hercules first shot Alcyoneus with an arrow, but when the giant fell on the ground he somewhat revived. However, at Athena’s advice Hercules dragged him outside Pallene, and so the giant died (1.6.1; see also Salowey, 2021).

Monkey fights against the Buddho-Daoist gods a few times. For instance, chapter four of JTTW reads:

Each displaying his divine powers, the Third Prince [Nezha] and Wukong battled for thirty rounds. The six weapons of that prince changed into a thousand and ten thousand pieces; the golden-hooped rod of Sun Wukong into ten thousand and a thousand. They clashed like raindrops and meteors in the air, but victory or defeat was not yet determined. Wukong, however, proved to be the one swifter of eye and hand. Right in the midst of the confusion, he plucked a piece of hair and shouted, “Change!” It changed into a copy of him, also wielding a rod in its hands and deceiving [Nezha]. His real person leaped behind Nata and struck his left shoulder with the rod. [Nezha], still performing his magic, heard the rod whizzing through the air and tried desperately to dodge it. Unable to move quickly enough, he took the blow and fled in pain. Breaking off his magic and gathering up his six weapons, he returned to his camp in defeat (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 156).

15) Godhood – Both become deities at the end of their respective story cycles. Hercules joins the gods of Olympus after death. Reasons given for this apotheosis include his his 12 Labors, his Gigantomachy deeds, or simply his virtus (Romero-Gonzalez, 2021, p. 275). One account from the Bibliotheca Historica of Diodorus reads:

… Heracles, having abandoned hope for himself [due to exposure to hydra venom], ascended the pyre and asked each one who came up to him too put torch to the pyre. And when no one had courage to obey him Philoctetes alone was prevailed upon; and he, having received in return for his compliance the gift of the bow and arrows of Heracles, lighted the pyre. And immediately lightning also fell from the heavens and the pyre was wholly consumed.

After this, when the companions of Iolaus came to gather up the bones of Heracles and found not a single bone anywhere, they assumed that, in accordance with the words of the oracle, he had passed from among men into the company of the gods.

[Description of the kinds of sacrifices that the various Greek states made to Heracles as a hero and god following his death/ascension]

We should add to what has been said about Heracles, that after his apotheosis Zeus persuaded Hera to adopt him as her son and henceforth for all time to cherish him with a mother’s love, and this adoption, they say, took place in the following manner. Hera lay upon a bed, and drawing Heracles close to her body then let him fall through her garments to the ground, imitating in this way the actual birth; and this ceremony is observed to this day by the barbarians whenever they wish to adopt a son. Hera, the myths relate, after she had adopted Heracles in this fashion, joined him in marriage to Hebe (4.38.4-4.392; see also Romero-Gonzalez, 2021).

Sun is elevated to Buddhahood at the journey’s end. The Buddha says the following to Monkey in chapter 100 of JTTW:

“Sun Wukong, when you caused great disturbance at the Celestial Palace, I had to exercise enormous dharma power to have you pressed beneath the Mountain of Five Phases. Fortunately your Heaven-sent calamity came to an end, and you embraced the Buddhist religion. I am pleased even more by the fact that you were devoted to the scourging of evil and the exaltation of good. Throughout your journey you made great merit by smelting the demons and defeating the fiends. For being faithful in the end as you were in the beginning, I hereby give you the grand promotion and appoint you the Buddha Victorious in Strife [Dou zhansheng fo, 鬥戰勝佛] (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 381).

16) Worship – Both are (were) worshiped. Hercules was worshiped by the ancient Greeks and Romans, while Sun is worshiped as the “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” in modern Chinese folk religion. It’s interesting to note that both deities are are believed to ward off evil.

These similarities might have been influenced by the same mythic tropes. For example, the skin of big cats have symbolized strength in many cultures. Scholars have suggested that Hercules has ties to ancient heroes of the Near East (Ogden, 2021a, pp. xxiv-xxv), so perhaps the Indic practices that would come to influence the Monkey King’s iconography were also influenced by the same ancient Indo-European sources.

3. When heroes meet

Hercules and Sun Wukong have technically met before. In the 13th-century version of the story cycle, Sun Wukong’s antecedent, the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者), changes a magic golden-ringed monk’s staff (Sk: khakkhara; Ch: xizhang, 錫杖) into a titanic, divine warrior while facing a white tiger spirit:

Monkey Pilgrim transformed his golden-ringed staff into a gigantic Yakşa whose head touched the sky and whose feet straddled the earth. In his hands he grasped a demon-subduing cudgel [jiangmochu, 降魔杵]. His body was blue as indigo, his hair red as cinnabar; from his mouth a fiery gleam shot forth a hundred yards long” (Wivell, 1994, p. 1189).

The titan eventually crushes the spirit with his weapon (Wivell, 1994, p. 1189). His “demon-subduing cudgel” is another name for a pestle-like ritual weapon with pronged tips called the vajra (Sk: “diamond” or “thunderbolt”; Ch: jingang, 金剛), which represents “power, indestructibility, and immutability, especially in tantric Buddhism” (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 952). The vajra is traditionally the weapon of Vajrapāni (Ch: Jingang shou pusa, 金剛手菩薩; lit: “Bodhisattva Holding the Vajra”) (Buswell & Lopez, 2014, p. 955; Huntington & Bangdel, 2003, pp. 197-199). So what does this have to do with Heracles?

Religious depictions of Vajrapāni as a muscular, club-wielding protector were influenced by depictions of Heracles in the Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhara (modern Pakistan/Afghanistan) (Hsing & Crowell, 2005). In fact, some carvings even portray Heracles as a protector of the Buddha (fig. 3)!

Fig. 3 – A stone carving of Heracles protecting the Buddha, Gandhara, 2nd-century (larger version). Image found on Wikipedia.

Also, Sun Wukong briefly interreacts with Vajra warriors based on Vajrapāni in the standard version of Journey to the West (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 4, p. 357, for example). So the above Death Battle is not a stretch at all. I’d like to see someone write a story where the divine Greek and Chinese heroes meet, perhaps some centuries after Zeus tasks Heracles/Vajrapāni with protecting the Buddha. After a brief fight, Heracles and Monkey become bond brothers. This would open the door to Monkey appearing in Greek tales!

In addition, Sun Wukong and Vajrapāni are associated with each other in Shaolin Monastery myth. The latter was historically worshiped as the progenitor of their famous staff method. A stele erected by Shaolin abbot Wenzai in 1517 shows that the deity’s vajra-club had been changed to a Chinese staff (fig. 4) (Shahar, 2008, p. 84). Vajrapāni’s Yaksha-like Nārāyana (Naluoyan(tian), 那羅延(天)) form was eventually equated with one of the four staff-wielding “Kimnara Kings” from the Lotus Sutra in 1575. His name was thus changed from Narayana to “Kimnara King” (Jinnaluo, 緊那羅) (Shahar, 2008, p. 87). One version of the story about his creation of the staff method takes place during the Yuan Dynasty‘s Red Turban Rebellion. Bandits lay siege to the monastery, but it is saved by a lowly kitchen worker wielding a long fire poker as a makeshift staff. He leaps into the oven and emerges as a monstrous giant tall enough to straddle both Mount Song and the imperial fort atop Mount Shaoshi, which are five miles (8.046 km) apart. The bandits flee when they behold this staff-wielding titan. The Shaolin monks later realize that the kitchen worker was none other than the Kimnara King in disguise (Shahar, 2008, pp. 87-88). Shahar (2008) suggests that mythical elements of the story were borrowed from the Monkey King’s adventures. He compares the worker’s transformation in the stove with Sun’s time in Laozi’s Eight Trigrams furnace (Bagua lu, 八卦爐), their use of the staff, and the fact that Monkey and his weapon can both grow to gigantic proportions (Shahar, 2008, p. 109). [9]

Fig. 4 – The 1517 Shaolin stele showing a titanic Vajrapāni defending the monastery from rebels (larger version). From Shahar, 2008, p. 84.


Update: 06-19-22

I’ve been notified by several people that the G1 Death Battle Fan Blog has posted a prediction. This blog is independent from the actual content creators. In a 7 to 6 split, the blog predicts Hercules will win, explaining that he is stronger and faster. While seemingly thorough, portions of their analysis make no sense. For example, the section on speed reads:

As far as speed goes, the demigod also comes out on top. Taking into account Wukong growing his staff from Earth to the Underworld and the Heavens, then scaling that back to his speed, he could potentially move at 800 quadrillion times the speed of light. However, Heracles scaling to Zeus surpasses this by dozens of times, with him being able to send shockwaves across the entire firmament by simply nodding his head. Zeus nodding his head is an act that should have been done with extreme ease – at least more ease than Zeus actually wrestling Heracles – meaning that Heracles should reasonably scale. As the firmament and Olympus are on the outer sphere of the cosmos, which encircle each other, this would have had to cross the entire diameter, putting the feat at 29 quintillion times the speed of light, over 36 times faster than Wukong …

They scale Sun Wukong’s speed not by his Cloud-Somersault (a metaphor for instantaneous travel) or his ability to carry mountains with meteoric speed but by the magic growth of his staff into a pillar of heaven. Why? They also provide astronomically large numbers without explaining how the figures were calculated, a very common problem with such versus discussions.

In addition, they wrongly state that the 72 Transformations grant Monkey immortality. He actually first attains immortality via Daoist elixir arts. Furthermore, they claim that Sun’s immortality can be taken away from him, referencing his turn in Laozi’s Eight Trigrams furnace. While the extreme heat was meant to extract the elixir from his body, it doesn’t work as Monkey was able to hide in a cooler part of the furnace (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 189). But we don’t know if this plan would have worked even if Sun had been stuck in direct heat. This is confusing an “intended result” with an “actual result”. But even if the heat could complete the job, how exactly is Hercules going to defeat Sun’s immortality. Does he also carry around a heavenly furnace? This is never explained in the analysis.

I don’t have time to analyze the entire article. I will reserve this space for the actual fight results.

Note: In light of new evidence, I’ve changed my opinion regarding the furnace. Please see the 06-28-22 update below.


Update: 06-23-22

I have finished adding my comments to the official fight and result transcripts of the battle (sec. 1.1 and 1.2). If any new evidence comes to light, I will make sure to further update the page.

I’m thrilled to announce that the episode has 1.1 million views after only two days! 925,000 plus of those were in the first 24 hours! I knew this fight would attract a lot of attention. I hope more and more people will finally read the novel and fall in love with Monkey’s adventures like I did oh so long ago.


Update: 06-26-22

When I originally watched the video, I skipped the character analysis straight to the fight. I only just now got around to reading the official transcript for the beginning, and I’m sorry to report that Monkey’s section is riddled with errors. Whomever wrote it has definitely never read the book. It would be like me writing a Death Battle transcript about Harry Potter based on a very lazy read of Wikipedia. I tried correcting the mistakes onsite, but my edits were reverted and I was told that the transcript is off limits. Therefore, I’ve decided to add my corrections and comments here (in blue) like I did above.

But before continuing, I want to note that I’m upset because it appears that info from my research blog was likely used in the video and Death Battle wiki website without the specific articles being linked to. Sure, my general blog URL was added twice to an external site (here and here), but this is not the same as linking to the actual articles on the video/wiki so people can see where Death Battle got their information from. Make no mistake, this has little to do with publicity; my blog generates zero money for me. It’s just fair that my work be recognized if it’s being used, especially if it contributed to a video currently making money for its creators

4. Sun Wukong’s character analysis

Wiz: There once was a mighty monkey warrior, born of a mystic stone from the energy of the sun and moon. Upon birth, he graciously bowed to the cardinal directions and-

1. The stone was “nourished for a long period by the seeds of Heaven and Earth and by the essences of the sun and the moon” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 101). 

Boomstick: Shot lasers from his eyes! Strap in folks, this one’s a doozy.

2. This feat is likely based on the birth of the historical Buddha. See parallel #2 on this article.

Wiz: This monkey soon befriended a band of other primates and, rather narcissistically, named himself their handsome Monkey King.

3. Sun doesn’t just proclaim himself king, though the addition of “handsome” is pure ego on his part (he’s actually really ugly). He proves himself in a test of bravery by jumping through a waterfall to discover a long-forgotten immortal’s grotto-heaven (see the opening of this article).

Boomstick: But after a few centuries of monkeying about, he got a taste of the dreaded… midlife crisis!

Wiz: You see, the Monkey King was fierce and brave, yet he feared death, so he ventured to new lands in search of immortality.

4. Brave? Yes. Fierce? Not yet a warrior.

Boomstick: Turns out, he’d find a lot of it.

Wiz: Training under the Taoist master, Puti, he earned his first method of immortality and a new name. He would be the Monkey Awakened to the Void, spoken as: Sun Wukong.

5. Subodhi is a Buddho-Daoist sage with heavy Buddhist associations despite his normal portrayal as an immortal.

Boomstick: He also learned a bunch of magic. He can ride clouds, make thousands of clones, heal from fatal wounds like decapitation, and transform into basically anything: a bird, some vapor, a pitchfork, even an incredible fighting temple!

Popup: Though this technique is called “72 Earthly Transformations”, the scope of Sun Wukong’s shapeshifting is limited only by his imagination. The number actually references a collection of stars that the power is associated with.

6. Example #1 of info from my blog being used but not linked to. And the actual name for the technique is the “Multitude of the Terrestrial Killers” (Disha shu地煞數). [10]

Wiz: With his famous cloud somersault, he could traverse the world at incredibly high speed. At first, a single somersault could carry him 180,000 li [a typo for 108,000], li being a traditional Chinese unit equal to about 500 meters, making one somersault move 54,000 kilometers per second, fast enough to circle the entire Earth in one leap.

7. Example #2 of info from my blog being used but not linked to. I note this ability to encircle the earth in the opening paragraph here.

Boomstick: And he’d only get faster from there. Monkey would do whatever it took to prove he was the best of the best.

Wiz: When fighting the mighty deity Prince Nezha, his foe transformed into a more powerful visage with three heads and six arms.

8. This doesn’t happen until chapters later when Monkey first rebels. I’m not sure why they would introduce this fight so early.

Boomstick: But Sun was like, “Hey, I can do that too,” and then did just that.

Wiz: Sun Wukong eventually returned to his simian subjects and, with his newfound power, amassed a veritable army. However, he felt no weapon in their arsenal suited him.

Boomstick: So he barged into the Dragon King‘s palace and demanded he hand over a weapon worthy of a king who can match the power of Heaven. Yeah, Sun was pretty full of himself. But, he wound up taking a pillar, originally designed to measure the depths of the ocean.

Popup: Some translations claim this “golden-hooped rod” measured or held up the galaxy, but these are incorrect. It was originally used to gauge the depth of the Great Flood, a story regarding the rise of dynastic China.

9. Example #3 of info from my blog being used but not linked to. Here I discuss the error in translation that led to this common misconception.

Wiz: What seemed like a worthless rod to the Dragon King was actually the perfect weapon for Wukong. Weighing nearly eight tons, the Ruyi Jingu Bang can change size at his whim. It can shrink to the size of a needle or grow long enough to pierce the heavens.

10. The pillar was not “useless”. He considered it an item of great importance:

“‘That,’ said the Dragon King, ‘was the measure with which the Great Yu fixed the depths of rivers and oceans when he conquered the Flood. It’s a piece of magic iron, but of what use could it be to him [Monkey]?'” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 135).

And later, he even refers to it as a “divine treasure” (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 142).

But the Dragon Queen suggests giving it to the rude and very powerful immortal anyway so that he will leave their kingdom (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 135).

Also, the staff weighs nearly nine tons.

Boomstick: The same heavens that got pretty mad with Sun after he crossed his name out of the Ledger of Death, making himself double immortal! Wait, how does that work?

Wiz: And even more mad when he demanded to be formally acknowledged as “The Great Sage Equal to Heaven”.

11. This doesn’t happen until after serving as the Bimawen and subsequently rebelling. Again, they introduce something too early.

Boomstick: Okay, we got a headstrong goofball who quickly masters new powers and wants a fancy title. This is just Shonen anime!

Wiz: Now, the Monkey King may have lashed out, but it was because when he requested a place in Heaven, a place he truly believed he deserved, the Jade Emperor‘s court reduced him to a stable boy.

12. He didn’t request a place in heaven. The celestial bureaucracy just gave him a position to keep his unruly adventures in check (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 143). Monkey only later “lashes out” upon learning of his low rank (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 149).

Boomstick: Beneath all his antics, what Sun wanted most was to prove himself.

Wiz: Even with all the shenanigans, the Jade Emperor remained cautious and willing to placate Wukong.

Boomstick: By making him the watchdog of the Garden of Immortal Peaches. He totally ate that shit, didn’t he, Wiz?

13. It’s only at this point when Monkey battles Nezha, and when he proves too powerful, heaven placates him with the aforementioned sagely title and the above position (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 155-159).

Wiz: Oh yeah, Wukong got hammered, ate most of the peaches, ran around the Jade Palace in a fit, and found five gourds of immortality pills… which he promptly swallowed. All of them.

Boomstick: Ok, so that makes… how many layers of immortality now?

Wiz: I’d say a few… hundred? Thousand? If you count each individual peach and pill. When he sobered up, he knew he was in serious trouble, so naturally… he prepared for war.

14. This glosses over the reason for why Sun was drunk in the first place. He crashes the long-awaited immortal peach banquet and drinks all of the heavenly wine. Only then does he drunkenly stumble into Laozi’s laboratory and eat all of the alchemical pills (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 165-166).

Boomstick: Wow, that escalated quickly! What are they gonna do? Kill him? So, the Monkey King proved too strong for Heaven. He battled all their best fighters, and even matched Erlang Shen blow-for-blow in an epic battle of transformations! He’s that guy with the third eye.

Wiz: And Heaven’s greatest holy warrior. Yet, no matter Erlang’s form, Wukong always had a counter. Until Laozi threw in a convenient plot MacGuffin that captured the monkey. But even with Wukong in chains, Heaven had a problem.

15. Sun has no problem fighting Erlang, that is until his beloved monkey army is routed. He thereafter loses heart and flees, using a number of animal/structural transformations to escape (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 181-184). This is obviously different from the scenario described above. See this article by my friend Irwen Wong over at Journey to the West Library to learn how Erlang wins the majority of their encounters. 

Also, Laozi’s Diamond snare doesn’t capture Monkey. It simply hits Sun on the head, dazing him long enough for heaven to capture him (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 186).

We cut to Boomstick.

Boomstick: He just wouldn’t die! Lightning, fire, even Laozi’s de-immortalizing furnace just made the monkey stronger!

16. The purpose of the Eight Trigrams furnace is not to remove one’s immortality but to produce the intense heat needed to manufacture alchemical elixirs (see section III of this article). This is an important distinction.

Laozi suggests that the reason why Monkey has a nearly indestructible body is because all of the immortal peaches and alchemical pills were likely refined in his lower elixir field. He then offers a possible solution:

“It would be better, therefore, if [he is placed] in the Brazier of Eight Trigrams, where he will be smelted by high and low heat. When he is finally separated from my elixir, his body will certainly be reduced to ashes” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, pp. 188-189).

But as I note in my 06-19-22 critique of the G1 Death Battle Fan Blog,

“…it doesn’t work as Monkey was able to hide in a cooler part of the furnace. But we don’t know if this plan would have worked even if Sun had been stuck in direct heat. This is confusing an ‘intended result’ with an ‘actual result'”.

Note: In light of new evidence, I’ve changed my opinion regarding the furnace. Please see the 06-28-22 update below.

Wiz: Now, Wukong is not invincible. He has been hurt by the Scorpion Demoness’ poison, which could even harm the Buddha, an awaken divine being liberated from the cycle of life and death entirely.

17. Please see what I wrote about the scorpion above (sec. 1.2, #2)

[Random skit removed for brevity]

Boomstick: Ugh… But even after all that, Sun had one more challenger to contend with; the Buddha himself!

Wiz: Buddha approached Wukong with a contest: leap out of his hand, and he could have the Jade Emperor’s throne for himself.

Boomstick: Having no impulse control, the monkey agreed, and in an instant, somersaulted to the very edge of Heaven.

Wiz: But he had already lost. Because Buddha achieved Nirvana, he transcended the world, literally holding all of existence. So even at the edge of the universe, Wukong technically never left his hand.

18. This matches what I wrote above about the Buddha and the universe (sec. 1.2, #3).

Boomstick: For his rebellion, Sun was put in time out, sealed under a mountain for 500 years.

19. This is an understandable mistake as the phrase “500 years” is thrown around a lot in the novel. But as I explain here, chapter 14 states that the mountain trapped Monkey during the rein of a historical usurper (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 306), revealing that his imprisonment actually lasts somewhere between 617 to 649 years.   

Wiz: But even Sun Wukong would find a chance at redemption. In his case, he was tasked with escorting and protecting a monk, Tang Sanzang, or Tripitaka, on a journey to the west.

Boomstick: With additional companions Pigsy and Sandy. The trip was a tough one, and Monkey abandoned it more than once. But through it all, he always returned to shine as the group’s powerhouse, saving Tripitaka’s life many, many times. Seriously, this guy could not stay out of trouble. It’s like Wiz on a blind date.

Wiz: Ahem. Wukong has cracked apart mountains, slayed hundreds of monsters, and survived the Yellow Wind Demon‘s storm that could destroy the universe. As in Heaven, Earth, the 18 layers of Hell, and more!

Popup: The storm is depicted differently across translations, but the original Chinese text uses “乾坤”, meaning “universe”, or more literally “every manifestation of nature”.

Boomstick: That’s cool and all, Wiz, but let’s answer the real question. Can he beat Goku?

Wiz: Um… maybe! During his journey, Wukong performed possibly his most legendary feat: holding up Mount Sumeru which, in traditional Mahayana Buddhism, is a mountain supporting the infinite cosmic sky.

Boomstick: And Sun just hauled it around on one shoulder. Just one! Because on his other shoulder… was a whole other mountain!

Popup: The other mountain was Mount Emei, one of the Sacred Mountain of China.

20. Example #4 of info from my blog being used but not linked to. This material of course comes from here.

Wiz: After 14 years of travel, the journey was complete, and Wukong had finally accomplished a truly great deed. For this, he was given his long-awaited place among the heavens.

Boomstick: As the Victorious Fighting Buddha! Now that’s got to be an anime.

Wiz: After so much time as a rebel, an outcast, and a truly unstoppable warrior, Sun Wukong had, at last, found his home.


Update: 06-28-22

I previously referenced Sun’s turn in Laozi’s Eight Trigrams furnace but stated that this should not be used as an anti-feat since the flames never actually hurt him (due to taking shelter in a cooler portion of the brazier) (06-19-22 update & sec. 4, #16). I also referenced Red Boy’s spiritually-cultivated Samādhi fire, noting that it is more powerful than earthly or even heavenly fire (sec. 1.2, #2). Regarding the latter, remember that Monkey easily survives an attempted execution by this celestial flame (sec. 1.2, #3). But it’s important to highlight that, in chapter 41, the combination of Samādhi fire and intense smoke is shown to override Monkey’s famous fire-protection spell:

His whole body covered by flame and smoke, the Great Sage found the intense heat unbearable and he dove straight into the mountain stream to try to put out the fire. Little did he anticipate that the shock of the cold water [11] was so great that the heat caused by the fire was forced inward into his body and he fainted immediately (Wu & Yu, vol. 2, p. 231).

And I was recently reminded of an additional episode where Sun has another brush with supernatural flames. In chapter 75, an ancient demon king places Monkey in a small, unassuming vase for execution, but the latter comments on the cool temperature inside. However, it turns out that this is an ultra powerful treasure “governed by the double primal forces of yin and yang” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 368), and the second that he speaks, the vessel assaults Sun first with fire, then biting snakes, and finally fire dragons. The first round of fire has no effect on him (nor do the snakes) but the fire dragons produce flames so hot that they also override the fire-protection spell:

He had hardly finished speaking when he felt some pain on his shanks. Rubbing them hurriedly with his hand, he found his shanks were turning flaccid because of the fire. More and more anxious, he thought to himself, “What’s to become of me? Even my shanks are weakened by the fire. I’ll be reduced to a cripple!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 369)

What’s interesting is that the vase’s various torments are said to be “activated by the seven jewels, the eight trigrams, and the twenty-four solar terms” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 368) (emphasis mine). These are the same eight trigrams as Laozi’s furnace. So, this suggests that Sun’s time in the brazier would have actually hurt his body. While this might even destroy his form, the novel hints that, besides providing a surplus of extra heads, the 72 Transformations also grant Monkey extra lives just like a video game (see the 06-12-22 update here). But this “respawning” is never officially shown in the novel. So what would happen if Sun had been trapped inside the Eight Trigrams furnace in direct heat? Would he just keep regenerating over and over again until his extra lives were spent (or he escaped), or would the supernatural flames simply destroy his body once and for all? I’m not sure. Make of this what you will.

But my original point still stands: Hercules would not have been able to overcome Monkey’s immortality unless he was carrying around a heavenly furnace and managed to force and keep the primate hero inside for a given time.


Update: 07-01-22

I forgot to mention something regarding the various fire-related episodes in the last update: Sun Wukong’s abilities are presented inconsistently throughout the novel. This is best illustrated by two episodes. As mentioned above, in chapter 75, Monkey cries that he’ll be a cripple if the supernatural fire continues to burn his ankles. But he previously demonstrated the ability to heal using his immortal breath in Chapter 46:

With a swagger, Pilgrim walked down to the execution site. Leaning himself on a huge pillar, he untied his robe and revealed his stomach. The executioner used a rope and tied his neck to the pillar; down below, another rope strapped his two legs also to the pillar. Then he wielded a sharp dagger and ripped Pilgrim’s chest downward, all the way to his lower abdomen. Pilgrim used both his hands to push open his belly, and then he took out his intestines, which he examined one by one. After a long pause, he put them back inside, coil for coil exactly as before. Grasping the skins of his belly and bringing them together with his hands, he blew his magic breath on his abdomen, crying, “Grow!” At once his belly closed up completely (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 309).

Prior to this, he quoted a fun poem about his abilities:

Cut off my head and I still can speak,
Sever my arms, I still can beat you up!
My legs amputated, I still can walk.
My belly, ripped open, will heal again,
Smooth and snug as a wonton people make:
A tiny pinch and it’s completely formed.
To bathe in boiling oil is easier still;
Like warm liquid cleanse me of dirt it will (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 307).

This inconsistency is likely due to the standard 1592 edition of Journey to the West coalescing from independent oral stories developed and told over the centuries (see the late-13th-century version of the story, for example). Therefore, it’s important to remember that Monkey is only as fast, strong, or invulnerable as the story calls for him to be. This serves to heighten the drama, making the story more compelling.


Update: 07-03-22

I’ve updated section three (“When heroes meet”) with new information. The section was more of an after thought when I was originally rushing to finish the article.


Update: 07-08-22

I’ve been thinking of more plausible ways in which the Monkey King and the original Greek Heracles might come into conflict. The two I have in mind require “what if” scenarios that change the original Journey to the West (1592) story in one way or another. The first involves Guanyin calling on Heracles/Vajrapāni instead of Erlang to deal with the primate immortal in chapter six. (As a dharma protector and embodiment of the Buddha’s power, Heracles/Vajrapāni would naturally be imbued with dharma power, the penultimate power in the novel’s cosmos. This means that he would eventually prevail over Monkey but come to respect Monkey’s strength and skill, especially since the primate only studied spiritual cultivation and martial arts for three years prior to his adventures.) This would make the reason for their fight more natural, but creating an extended narrative where the hero befriends Sun and introduces him to the Greek pantheon would be difficult as the journey—i.e. escorting the monk to India—still needs to take place.

The second involves the end of the novel when the Buddha orders the eight Vajra warriors to escort the pilgrims to China in chapter 100. Perhaps, in our version, Heracles/Vajrapāni is among them or he even replaces the eight. Knowing of Monkey’s great power, he might invite him to have a friendly sparring match. But this seems like a bad time to pick a fight, making their confrontation less natural. But considering that this happens at the end of the journey, it opens the door to introducing Sun to the Greek gods. This would naturally occur after Monkey achieves Buddhahood, removing any chance that he would struggle against a Grecian foe.

As I write this, I thought of a third that’s a mix of the two. Heracles/Vajrapāni is still called on to halt Sun’s rampage, and after the latter is promoted in spiritual rank, the Buddha charges the guardian with escorting the “Victorious Fighting Buddha” through the Greek world system—i.e. the Greek pantheon. I really like the idea of Heracles/Vajrapāni visiting his old pantheon as his Vajra weapon is analogous to Zeus’ thunderbolt. It serves the same function under the Hindu storm god Indra, who is sometimes associated with Zeus in Greco-Buddhist art.

The first Greeks arrived in India during the reign of Darius the Great (550-486 BCE) and later Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE). Just like American Gods, these merchants, artisans, farmers, and mercenaries would have brought their religion with them, allowing the Greek pantheon to learn of the Buddha. And just like the “Enlightened One” conversed with the Vedic gods atop Mt. Sumeru, he too might visit Olympus and talk with the Greek gods. This would lead Zeus assigning his son, the “god of strength”, to guard the Buddha, forming a link between the Greek and Buddhist pantheons.

Notes:

1) JTTW uses two measurement units when referring to the staff, the chi (尺, i.e. “Chinese foot”; 12.52 in / 31.8 cm) and the zhang (丈; 1 = 10 chi) (Jiang, 2005, p. xxxi). Monkey is said to fight with the staff at two lengths, “two zhang” (erzhang, 二丈, i.e. 20 chi) in chapter three and “12 or 13 chi” (丈二三) in chapter 88 (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 135; vol. 4, p. 196). But twenty is likely a typo for 12 (zhanger, 丈二, 3.82 m / 12.53 ft.) since the pillar was already close to the former size when Sun first saw it in the dragon treasury. Therefore, this correction agrees with the latter measurement.

2) Translation slightly altered. Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) writes that it’s the size of a “rice bowl” (vol. 1, p. 135), but this doesn’t appear in the original Chinese.

3) In chatper 59, for example, he invades the stomach of his former bond brother‘s wife in an attempt to procure a magic weapon needed to clear his master’s path to the west:

“I’m now having a little fun in my esteemed Sister-in-law’s stomach! I am, as the saying goes, seeing right through you! I know how thirsty you must be, so let me send you a ‘sitting bowl’ to relieve your thirst” Suddenly he shoved his foot down hard and unbearable pain shot through Rākṣasī’s lower abdomen, sending her tumbling to the floor and moaning. “Please don’t refuse me, Sister-in-law,” said Pilgrim, “I’m presenting you with an added snack for your hunger.” He jerked his head upward, and unbearable pain coursed through Rākṣasī’s heart. She began to roll all over the ground, the pain turning her face yellow and her lips white. All she could do was to cry out, “Brother-in-law Sun, please spare my life!” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, p. 129).

4) Mt. Sumeru is said to be 160,000 yojanas (1 yojana = roughly 8 miles/12.87 km) tall, with 80,000 below a great ocean and 80,000 exposed above (Vasubandhu, 2014, pp. 454).

5) Three lines from a poem in chapter 41 read: “It’s not fire from Heaven, / Nor is it a wildfire. / It’s the realized samādhi fire born of the demon’s self-cultivation” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 225).

6) “Dharma power” (fali, 法力) is the strongest form of magic in Journey to the West. See this paper for an explanation of the novel’s Buddho-Daoist cosmic hierarchy, which places Buddhist deities at the top.

7) The hydra is the nigh-immortal offspring of the Titanic monsters Typhon and Echidna (Hesiod & Powell, 2017, p. 52).

8) Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) uses “pounds” instead of the original jin (斤, a.k.a. catty) (vol. 1, p. 135). During the Ming dynasty when the novel was compiled, one jin equaled approximately 590 grams (Jiang, 2005, p. xxxi). I will therefore alter Yu’s translation to reflect more accurate measures.

9) Yes, this information comes from Wikipedia, but I’m the one who originally added it under the screenname “Ghostexorcist”. See this edit history, for example.

10) I follow the translation used in Meulenbeld (2019). Yu (Wu & Yu, 2012) simply translates this as the “Art of the Earthly Multitude” (vol. 1, p. 122).

11) This sounds like a case of thermal shock.

Sources:

Aston, E. (2021). Labor VI: The Stymphalian Birds. In D. Ogden (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Heracles (pp. 95-106). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Birrell, A. (1999). Chinese Mythology: An Introduction. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Deacy, S. (2021). Heracles between Hera and Athena. In D. Ogden (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Heracles (pp. 387-394). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Hanesworth, P. (2021). Labor XII: Cerberus. In D. Ogden (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Heracles (pp. 165-180). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

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Hsing, I.T., & Crowell, W. G. (2005). Heracles in the East: The Diffusion and Transformation of His Image in the Arts of Central Asia, India, and Medieval China. Asia Major, 18(2), 103–154. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41649907

Hsu, K. L. (2021). The Madness and the Labors. In D. Ogden (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Heracles (pp. 13-25). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

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The Sun Wukong Cult in Fujian

Last update: 08-17-19

Worshipers of the Wanfu Temple of Tainan, Taiwan believe their high god and oldest altar statue, the “Laying the Foundation Elder Great Sage” (Kaiji Da Dasheng, 開基大大聖) (fig. 1), was transported to the island from the southern Chinese province of Fujian by a certain Lady Ruan (Ruan Furen, 阮夫人) during the Southern Ming/early Qing Dynasty (c. 1660). Fujian is home to a large number of temples dedicated to Sun Wukong. Monkey’s cult on the mainland may have some bearing on the history of his worship on the island. This is especially true since Taiwan was made a prefecture of Fujian in 1684 by the Qing. It was later granted provincehood in 1887 (Gordon, 2007). The cult was no doubt part of the cultural exchange that took place between these two areas during this time. In this paper I use modern demographics and historical records and stories to explore the history of Sun Wukong’s worship in Fujian. I suggest the existence of a historical 12th-century monkey cult explains why the Great Sage’s cult was so readily adopted in the province.

Important Great Sages 1 - small

Fig. 1 – The Wanfu Temple’s Laying the Foundation Great Great Sage altar statue, indicated by the letter A (larger version). B and C are lesser Great Sages within the temple’s pantheon.

I. Modern demographics and possible tie to historical trends

The plains of Putian (莆田) on the central Fujian coast hosts a cluster of Great Sage temples. Dean and Zheng (2009) show the Great Sage is the sixth of the forty most popular deities, his statue appearing in 332 temples, even beating out Guanyin (322 statues) in seventh place (p. 177). Additionally, they describe an interesting geographical correlation in their distribution:

Using GIS mapping, one can unearth many suggestive correlations in distributions of different cultural features across the plain. For example, certain gods such as Qitian dasheng 齊天大聖 (Sun Wukong 孫悟空) and Puji shenghou 普濟聖侯 (Zhu Bajie 豬八戒), the Monkey and the Pig of the classic Xiyouji 西游記 (Journey to the West), appear more often in poorer villages in the northern plain [fig. 2], often in higher elevations than in the low-lying, densely irrigated, wealthier villages of the southern plains. This suggests that the unruly natures of these gods appealed to poorer communities rather than to villages with established scholar-literati lineages (Dean & Zheng, 2009, pp. 38-39)

Fujian Sun Wukong and Zhu Bajie Temple overlay Map - small

Fig. 2 – Left: Distribution of Sun Wukong temples (red) in the Putian plains of Fujian Province, China (larger version); Right: An overlay of Zhu Bajie Temples (light blue) with those of Monkey (red) (larger version). There is quite a bit of overlap. Adapted from Dean & Zheng, 2009, pp. 192-193.

Sun Wukong is one of several gods who never enjoyed state patronage in dynastic China due to their eccentric or rebellious nature (Shahar, 1996, p. 185). Regarding the latter, emperors had to deal with real world challenges to their own primacy, so paying homage to, say, a dissident monkey spirit probably didn’t seem too appealing. It’s interesting to note that Monkey is worshiped in Fujian and Taiwan under his defiant title of the Great Sage Equaling Heaven, a name he chose during his rebellion with the celestial realm, instead of his Buddhist name Wukong (悟空, “Awakened to Emptiness”) (Shahar, 1996, p. 201). Therefore, Monkey may have historically appealed to poorer folks because he had the power to push back against an unfair government, perhaps one that favored rich literati over impoverished farmers. This could explain the demographics mentioned above. If true, such people could be responsible for bringing Sun’s cult to Taiwan.

II. The connection between religion, myth, and popular literature

Emperors who officially recognized gods helped make them more popular or at least better known. [1] But, as Shahar (1996) explains, the state’s involvement rarely went beyond building temples and making offerings. Oral tales and popular novels were largely responsible for spreading the myth of a particular deity (p. 185). He continues:

In some cases the novel’s transformation of its divine protagonist was so profound, and its impact on the shape of its cult so great, that the novelist could be considered the deity’s creator. A notable example is Sun Wukong. The cult of this divine monkey in late imperial times cannot be separated from his image as shaped by the successive Journey to the West novels. In this respect he is indeed their author’s creation, and Pu Songling‘s complaint, voiced through his protagonist Xu Sheng [許盛], is justified: “Sun Wukong is nothing but a parable invented by [the novelist] Old Qiu [老丘]. [2] How can people sincerely believe in him?” (Shahar, 1996, pp. 193-194).

The tale referred to by Shahar, titled the Great Sage Equaling Heaven (Qitian Dasheng, 齊天大聖) appears in Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (Liaozhai zhiyi, 聊齋誌異), a collection of popular tales recorded as early as 1679 by Pu Songling and later posthumously published in 1740 (Barr, 1984). The story follows the aforementioned Xu Sheng and his older brother, both merchants from Shandong, who travel to Fujian to sell their wares but are told to pray to the Great Sage when they fail to make any money.  They visit the monkey god temple and witness people burning incense and kowtowing to an image of Sun Wukong. The older brother takes part in the rituals, but Sheng simply laughs and leaves, resulting in a subsequent argument between the two during which Sheng ridicules adherents for worshiping a fictional character from a novel. Sheng later falls bedridden with agonizing leg sores that prevent him from walking, yet he refuses to accept the Great sage is punishing him. His brother begs him to repent, but he still refuses. The brother shortly thereafter falls ill and dies, prompting Sheng to go to the temple to beg for his brother’s life. That night, he dreams he is brought before Sun Wukong, who rebukes Sheng for his rude behavior and reveals the leg sores (the result of being stabbed by Monkey’s heavenly sword) [3] and his brother’s subsequent death to be heaven-sent punishments. The deity finally agrees to revive the brother and sends an order to King Yama in hell to release his soul. Sheng shows his thanks by kneeling. He then awakes to find his brother has revived but remains too weak to work. Days later, Sheng meets an old man who claims he can use “a little magic” to transport them to a beautiful place that will sap away the merchant’s depression wrought by the past events. The two travel by cloud to a celestial paradise where Sheng and the old man drink tea with an aged deity. The god rewards Sheng with twelve magic stones for taking the time to visit him. Upon returning to earth, the merchant realizes the old man is the Great Sage, for both use the “Somersault Cloud” (Jindou yun, 筋斗雲) as a means of conveyance. In the end, the magic stones are found to have melted, but this corresponds to a drastic increase in the brothers’ selling profits. The two return home but are sure to pay their respects to the Great Sage anytime they visit Fujian for business (Pu & Sondergard, 2014, pp. 2078-2085).

I’d like to point out the story includes an afterward that critiques the idea of Sun Wukong being a real god:

The collector of these strange tales remarks, “Once upon a time, a scholar who was passing a temple went in and painted a pipa on one wall, then left; when he checked on it later, its spiritual power was considered so outstanding that people had joined together there to burn incense to it. A god certainly doesn’t have to exist in order to be considered powerful in this world; if people believe it to be divine, it will be so for them. What’s the reason for this? When people who share the same beliefs gather together, they’ll choose some creature figure to represent those beliefs. It’s right that an outspoken man like Sheng should be blessed by the god; who else could believe for real that he’s protected by someone who keeps an embroidery needle inside his ear, who he can transform one of his hairs into a writing brush, or who ascends via cloud-somersault into the cerulean sky! In the end, Sheng’s mind must have deluded him, for what he saw simply couldn’t be true” (Pu & Sondergard, 2014, p. 2085)

This shows that, while the common folk believed in Monkey, the literati class scoffed at such an idea. This again may explain why, as mentioned above, more well-educated communities in modern Fujian do not widely worship Monkey.

III. Historical monkey cults in Fujian

Apart from Pu Songling’s story, there are two other 17th-century references to the worship of a monkey god in Fujian. Dudbridge (1970) explains:

According to You Dong [尤侗] (1618-1704) the citizens of Fuzhou worshiped Sun Xingzhe [孫行者, Pilgrim Sun] as a household god and built temples to the monkey-god Qitian Dasheng. Tong Shisi [佟世思] (1651-92) describes the monkey-headed god of Fujian as bearing a metal circlet about his forehead, brandishing an iron cudgel, wearing a tiger-skin and known as Sun Dasheng [孫大聖, Great Sage Sun]. Traditionally he had appeared in the clouds to beat back an attack from Japanese pirates (p. 158). [4]

I find the last reference particularly interesting because it refers to the preceding 16th-century when China’s coast was plagued by Japanese pirates. It depicts the Great Sage as a benevolent god who intervenes to protect his chosen people, the Chinese.

In her excellent paper on the origins of Sun Wukong, Hera S. Walker (1998) discusses a 1237 stone relief from the western pagoda of the Kaiyuan Temple (開元寺) in Quanzhou, a port city in Fujian, that portrays a sword-wielding, monkey-headed warrior (pp. 69-70). [5] Considered by many to be an early depiction of Monkey, the figure wears a fillet, a tunic, a Buddhist rosary, and a pair of bangles (Fig. 3). Walker quotes Victor Mair, who believes the fillet and the figure wearing it recall South and Southeast asian depictions of the Buddhist guardian Andira and the Hindu monkey god Hanuman (Walker, 1998, p. 70). I have suggested in a previous article that the accouterments worn by the warrior are instead based on Esoteric Buddhist ritual attire known in China. So instead of being based on a foreign source, it can be considered a depiction of a local spirit or deity. The relief therefore suggests the proposed Fujian monkey god cult predates the 17th-century.

Better Kaiyung Temple Monkey (Zayton-Quanzhou) - small

Fig. 3 – The 1237 stone relief of Sun Wukong from the Kaiyuan Temple in Quanzhou, Fujian (larger version).

The oldest known evidence for a cult based around a monkey is described in Hong Mai’s (洪邁, 1123-1202) the Record of the Listener (Yijian zhi, 夷堅志, c. 1160), a collection of supernatural tales from the Song Dynasty. The following story is said to take place in the Yongfu County of Fujian. Again, we turn to Dudbridge (2005):

The image [effigy], dubbed Monkey King 猴王, was shaped around a captured living monkey and worshipped as a ‘spirit protecting hills and woods’ (保山林神). [6] It afflicted the surrounding population with fevers and frenzy. Blood sacrifice won no relief. Shamans and monks assaulted the spirit by night with noisy ritual music, but to no effect. Only the Buddhist elder Zongyan 宗演 successfully admonished the resentful monkey spirit and wrought its deliverance by reciting in Sanskrit the dhāraṇī of the All-Compassionate (大悲咒). The grateful monkey appeared to him the same night, explaining that she was now able to rise to heaven. Later the image and its thirty-two attendants (all made from birds) were smashed, and the hauntings came to an end (p. 264; see also Dudbridge, 1970, p. 159).

Dudbridge (1970) is reluctant, however, to accept this as a precursor to Sun Wukong’s cult, especially since both this 12th-century monkey spirit and the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou Xingzhe, 猴行者) from the The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures, a 13th-century precursor to Journey to the West, bear little resemblance to the simian god mentioned in 17th-century records. He instead suggests the Great Sage’s cult could have grown up around stories connected to the publishing of the novel (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 159). While Journey to the West certainly played a sizable role in the spread of Monkey’s cult, I think the above tale shows that the Fujian area was already primed for monkey worship by at least the 12th-century. Most importantly, the noted Song dynasty poet Liu Kezhuang (劉克莊, 1187-1269), whose family hailed from the Fujian city of Putian (mentioned in section one) (Ebrey, 2005, p. 95), referenced the Monkey pilgrim twice in his 13th-century work. The second of two such references uses Monkey as a metaphor to describe the ageing 70-year-old poet’s appearance. A portion of the poem reads:

A back bent like a water-buffalo in the Zi stream [泗河],
Hair as white as the silk thread issued by the “ice silkworms”,
A face even uglier than Hou Xingzhe,
Verse more scanty than even He Heshi [鶴何師] (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 46)

This shows the character’s story cycle was so well-known in Fujian at this time that no other specifics from the oral tradition had to be mentioned. Therefore, stories of the early monkey cult and those of Sun Wukong could have existed in Fujian around the same time. It’s not entirely impossible then that the historical monkey worship in the province gave the cult of the Great Sage, whenever it first appeared, a boost. This might explain why a so-called literary character would come to be so readily worshiped in the province.

IV. Conclusion

Taiwan has close ties to the southern Chinese province of Fujian because the former was made a prefecture of the latter during the 17th-century. The province is home to a large number of temples dedicated to the Monkey King, so this is no doubt connected to the spread of his cult to the island nation. Modern GIS mapping in Fujian suggests Sun Wukong’s temples mainly inhabit the northern highlands of the Putian plains where poorer villages reside. Monkey’s cult never received royal patronage in dynastic China due to his rebellious nature. The fact that he is worshiped in Fujian and Taiwan by his rebellious title of the Great Sage Equaling Heaven suggests Monkey may have historically appealed to the poorer class because he had the power to push back against an unfair government, perhaps one that favored the rich over the destitute. If true, these could be the people responsible for bringing Sun’s cult to Taiwan.

The mythos of Monkey’s cult was spread thanks to oral tales and popular literature. His mythos became so inseparable from the novel that the scholar class looked upon him as a literary character that jumped from the pages of fiction to be worshiped as a god. An example of this viewpoint appears in Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (written c. 17th-cent.) in which a skeptical merchant only becomes an adherent of the Great Sage after he and his brother are punished with painful sores and death, respectively. The author of the tale comments the merchant was probably delusional to fall for such a belief. This scholarly disdain for such literary gods may then explain why the more well-educated villages in Putian don’t widely worship Sun Wukong today.

Other 17th-century sources referring to Monkey’s Fujian cult portray him as a headband-wearing, cudgel-wielding benevolent god who comes to the aid of the Chinese people. A 13th-century stone relief located on the western pagoda of the Kaiyuan Temple in Quanzhou depicts a sword-wielding, monkey-headed warrior wearing a fillet. While past scholarship has posited a South and Southeast Asian origin for the figure’s iconography, my research suggests it to be based on esoteric ritual accouterments known in China. So instead of being based on a foreign source, it can be considered a depiction of a local spirit or deity. The relief therefore suggests the proposed Fujian monkey god cult predates the 17th-century. The oldest evidence for such a cult appears in Hong Mai’s Record of the Listener, a 12th-century collection of supernatural tales. It refers to a malevolent simian god worshiped as the “Spirit protecting hills and woods” that spread fever and was eventually pacified by a Buddhist monk. This shows Fujian was primed for monkey worship by the 12th-century, and the fact that the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Sun Wukong’s original name) is mentioned in the secular works of the Putian poet Liu Kezhuang in the 13th-century shows stories of this god and Monkey existed in Fujian around the same time. The historical existence of a Fujian monkey cult may have given Sun Wukong’s cult a boost, explaining how a literary character came to be so readily worshiped.


Updated: 07-26-19

The American missionary Justus Doolittle (1865) recorded information about the worship of the Great Sage in Fuzhou city, Fujian province, China during the 19th-century:

The Monkey. — It is represented as a man sitting, the face only being like a monkey. The image is usually made of wood or clay. Sometimes a picture of it is made on paper, or simply the title under which the monkey is worshiped is written on a slip of paper, and used instead of an image. There are several large temples at this place, erected for the worship of “His Excellency the Holy King,” one of the titles much used in speaking of the monkey as an object of worship. Oftentimes the niche holding the image or the written name is placed in a hollow tree, or in the wall at the corners of streets, or at the heads of alleys or lanes. Such places, in this city and vicinity, where the monkey is worshiped, reckoned together with the small temples or buildings dedicated to it, amount to several scores. The worship consists principally in the burning of incense and candles, sometimes attended with the presentation of meats, vegetables, and fruits. The monkey was first worshiped in return for some supposed services rendered the individual who went to India, by special command of an emperor of the Tang dynasty, to obtain the Sacred Books of the Buddhist religion — so some affirm. This emperor deified the monkey, or, at least, he conferred the august title of “the great Sage equal to Heaven” upon that quadruped. The birthday of “His Excellency the Holy King” is believed to occur on the twenty-third of the second Chinese month, when his monkey majesty is specially worshiped by men from all classes of society. The monkey is believed to have the general control of hobgoblins, witches, elves, etc. It is also supposed to be able to bestow health, protection, and success on mankind, if not directly, indirectly, by keeping away malicious spirits or goblins. People often imagine that sickness, or want of success in study and trade, is caused by witches and hobgoblins. Hence the sick or the unsuccessful worship the monkey, in order to obtain its kind offices in driving away or preventing the evil influences of various imaginary spirits or powers (vol. 1, pp. 287-288).

He continues, “Sometimes the image carried in procession while praying for rain represents a deified monkey, an object which is much worshiped by some classes of the people at this place” (Doolittle, 1865, vol. 2, p. 119).

It appears that Doolittle wasn’t aware of Journey to the West since he combines folklore with history, claiming a Tang emperor deified and/or bestowed Wukong with his Great Sage title. Sun’s image as an exorcist and healer, as well as his remuneration with incense and delicious foodstuffs, matches what I’ve previously written about in Taiwan. But his association with rainmaking is new, although not entirely a surprise. Also, his birthday is celebrated on a different day, the twenty-third day of the second lunar month, instead of the twelfth day of the tenth lunar month in Taiwan and the sixteenth day of the eighth lunar month in Hong Kong and Singapore. Interestingly, unlike Fuzhou, his birthday is celebrated on the twenty-fifth day of the second lunar month in Putian (Dean & Zheng, 2010, p. 162, for example). Such differences highlight that Monkey’s cult never received state patronage and therefore lacks standardization in beliefs and practices even in Fujian.

This information may have implications for the worship of the Great Sage by southern Chinese immigrants in 19th-century San Francisco.


Updated: 08-17-2019

The Japanese researcher Isobe Akira shows that, despite appearing in Song-era sources, the aforementioned story about the female monkey king can be traced to the late Tang period (Mair, 1989, pp. 694-695). This shows Fujian was primed for monkey worship centuries prior to the development of Sun Wukong’s story cycle.

Additionally, Isobe points to one of the earliest known references to Sun Wukong. A tale appearing in Zhang Shinan’s (張世南, 12th-13th century) Memoirs of a Traveling Official  (Youhuan jiwen遊宦紀聞) tells of Zhang the Sage (Zhang sheng, 張聖), a farmer-turned-Buddhist monk who gains literacy and clairvoyance after eating a magic peach. In the story, Zhang is asked to write a eulogy in honor of a newly built revolving sutra case. The resulting poem references the Monkey Pilgrim:

Fresh are the pattra (palm) leaves on which are written
the unexcelled (anuttara), vigorous texts,
In several lives, Tripitaka went west to India to retrieve them;
Their every line, their every letter is a precious treasure,
Each sentence and each word is a field of blessing (punyaksetra).
In the waves of the sea of misery (duhkha-sagara),
the Monkey-disciple presses on 猴行復,
Through the waters of the river that soak its hair,
the horse rushes forward;
No sooner have they passed the long sand than they must face
the trial of the golden sands,
Only while gazing toward the other shore do they know
the reasons (pratyaya) for being on this shore.
The demons (yaksas) are delighted that they might
get their heart’s desire,
But the Bodhisattva, with hand clasped in respectful greeting,
sends them on;
Now here are the five hundred and sixty-odd cases of scriptures,
Their merit is difficult to measure, their perfection
hard to encompass (Mair, 1989, pp. 693-694).

This eulogy is fascinating because it references additional elements that would appear in The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures, including the Buddhist master’s quest to India over many lifetimes, the tribulations at the river of sand (a nod to Sha Wujing’s precursor), the demons encountered, and heavenly assistance. Isobe dates Zhang the Sage’s tale to the late Northern Song to the early Southern Song (circa 1127) (Mair, 1989, p. 694). But what’s interesting for our purposes is that the original recorder, Zhang Shinan was known to have historically held a government post in Fujian (Zheng, Kirk, Buell, & Unschuld, 2018, pp. 644-645), meaning he could have picked up the tale in the southern province. This adds an additional connection between Fujian and Sun Wukong.

Notes:

1) One example of this connected to Journey to the West is Erlang. He was originally worshiped as a hunting god and queller of mountain ghosts by the Qiang (羌) ethnic group of the western Sichuan region. But his cult became even more popular upon gaining state recognition. Wu (1987) writes: “The Er-lang cult became even more popular in Sichuan under the patronage of the Later Shu emperor, Meng Chang 孟昶 (r. 934-65), and in 965, when the Song dynasty conquered the kingdom, it adopted the cult, erecting temples for the god in the capital and throughout the country” (pp. 107-108).

2) This refers to Qiu Chuji (丘處機, 1148-1227), the founder of the Dragon Gate sect of Daoism during the Song Dynasty. Qiu is known to have written a travel journal named Journey to the West, which Pu Songling confused with the novel of the same name (Pu & Sondergard, 2014, p. 2080 n. 1).

3) Literally “Bodhisattva Saber” (Pusa dao, 菩薩刀).

4) Source altered slightly. The Wade Giles was converted to pinyin and the Chinese characters from the footnotes were moved into the paragraph.

5) In act 10 of the early 15th-century zaju play Journey to the West, Guanyin gives Sun Wukong an iron headband, a cassock, and, most importantly, a sword. His depiction in the play and this relief then may have some connection.

6) The fact that the effigy was formed around a living monkey suggests it was killed in the process. This would explain its rage.

Sources:

Barr, A. (1984). The Textural Transmission of Liaozhai zhiyi. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 44 (2), pp. 515-562.

Dean, K., & Zheng, Z. (2009). Ritual alliances of the Putian plain. Volume One: Historical introduction to the return of the gods. Leiden: Brill.

Dean, K., & Zheng, Z. (2010). Ritual alliances of the Putian plain. Volume Two: A survey of village temples and ritual activities. Leiden: Brill.

Doolittle, J. (1865). Social life of the Chinese: With some account of their religious, governmental, educational, and business customs and opinions. With special but not exclusive reference to Fuhchau. Volume 1 and 2. New York: Harper & Brothers.

Dudbridge, G. (2005). Books, tales and vernacular culture: Selected papers on China. Leiden: Brill.

Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-yu chi: A study of antecedents to the sixteenth-century Chinese novel. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Ebrey, P. B. (2005). Women and the family in Chinese history. London: Routledge.

Gordon, L. H. D. (2007). Confrontation over Taiwan: Nineteenth-century China and the powers. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Mair, V. (1989). Suen Wu-kung = Hanumat? The Progress of a Scholarly Debate, in Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Sinology (pp. 659-752). Taipei: Academia Sinica.

Pu, S., & Sondergard, S. L. (2014). Strange tales from Liaozhai. Volume 6. Fremont, Calif: Jain Pub.

Shahar, M. (1996). Vernacular Fiction and the Transmission of Gods’ Cults in Later Imperial China in Shahar, M., & Weller, R. P. (1996). Unruly gods: Divinity and society in China (pp. 184-211). Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.

Walker, H.S. (1998). Indigenous or foreign? A look at the origins of monkey hero Sun Wukong. Sino-Platonic Papers, 81, pp. 1-117.

Zheng, J., Kirk, N., Buell, P. D., & Unschuld, P. U. (2018). Dictionary of the Ben cao gang mu, Vol. 3: Authors and book titles. Berkeley: University of California Press.

The Worship of Sun Wukong in Wanfu Temple: Initial Findings

Last updated: 07/21/2020

As a historian of the great Chinese classic Journey to the West (1592), much of my time researching is spent flipping through piles of books or searching the internet. Rarely do I get the opportunity to conduct field research on living traditions connected with the novel. That’s why I was excited to learn of the Buddho-Daoist Wanfu temple (Wanfu an, 萬福庵) (fig. 1 and 2) in Tainan, Taiwan where they worship Sun Wukong under his guise as the Great Sage Equaling Heaven (Qitian Dasheng, 齊天大聖). This happened to coincide with a short break from school, allowing me time to travel. I left Taipei where I live and stayed in the West Central District of the southern municipality. My afternoon was spent independently touring both floors of the recently renovated temple and taking numerous photos, all of which can be seen on my google drive. I had originally planned to catch the train home that evening, but was so intrigued by what I saw that I delayed my return another day. After making introductions, my second afternoon was spent asking questions about pantheon structure, rituals, general beliefs, etc. I was invited back that evening to record their spirit-medium channeling the Great Sage.

Below I present my initial findings. I realize a day is obviously not enough time for observation, so the following information should be looked upon as an informal survey. However, I still feel this material is important, not only because few scholars writing in English have published on the worship of Sun Wukong, but also because it helps flesh out the ongoing history of his veneration going back to at least the 17th-century. [1]

Exterior and entrance

Fig. 1 – Wanfu temple exterior (larger version). Fig. 2 – The entrance (larger version).

1. Temple History

Wanfu is touted as the oldest temple dedicated to the Great Sage in all of Taiwan. It was originally a mansion built during the early 1660s for Ruan Jun (阮駿), a subordinate of the famous Southern Ming Dynasty General Koxinga. His widow Lady Ruan (阮夫人) is said to have lived out the rest of her days there in religious piety, and following her death, the mansion was converted into a house of worship called the Lady Ruan Temple (Ruan Furen si, 阮夫人寺). The name was subsequently changed to “Myriad Blessings” (Wanfu, 萬福) in the 11th year of the Jiaqing reign (1806) during a time when the temple was known for taking in orphans. The change was made by nuns who believed the children benefited from the blessings of an old stone Great Sage statue thought to have been brought over from Fujian by Lady Ruan when she and thousands of other people fled the invading Qing forces to Taiwan. Sun Wukong’s influence over the temple grew to the point that, while still officially known as Wanfu, (fig. 3) it came to acquire the additional name of Taiwan’s Laying the [Religious] Foundation Great Sage Equaling Heaven Temple (Quantai Kaiji Qitian Dasheng miao, 全臺開基齊天大聖廟) (fig. 4). A second level was added to the building in 1971, and further renovations were completed in 2014.

Signs

Fig. 3 – The “Wanfu Temple” sign over the main templer doors (larver version). Fig. 4 – The neon sign on the facade reads “Wanfu temple Laying the Foundation Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (larger version).

2. Pantheon of Great Sages

One of the most interesting aspects of the temple is that it recognizes more than one Great Sage, each with his own function. Their pantheon consists of a trinity, followed by a small handful in administrative positions, and finally a plethora of soldier Monkeys. The highest-ranking is the aforementioned 300-plus-year-old stone statue named Laying the Foundations Elder Great Sage (Kaiji Da Dasheng, 開基大大聖) (fig. 5A and 8). His central importance is signified by his position atop a chair on the altar stage. He is alternatively known as the Great Sage Lord (Dasheng Ye, 大聖爺). The second and third ranking members of this trinity, respectively named Laying the Foundations Second Great Sage (Kaiji Er Dasheng, 開基二大聖) and Laying the Foundations Third Great Sage (Kaiji San Dasheng, 開基三大聖) (fig. 5B, 5C, and 8), sit to his right and left. The Elder Great Sage and the Second Great Sage remain in heaven unless some important matter requires their direct participation. The Third Great sage alternates with the administrative Tour Inspector Great Sage (see below) to see to external temple business on Saturdays.

Trio and most of admins

Fig. 5A – The Laying the Foundation Elder Great Sage, the 300-year-old stone statue; 5B – The Laying the Foundation Second Great Sage; and 5C – The Laying the Foundation Third Great Sage (larger version). Fig. 6 – The Tour Inspector Great Sage (larger version). Fig. 7 – The Internal Affairs Great Sage (larger version). 

The administrative Monkeys include the large Tour Inspector Great Sage (Chuxun Dasheng, 出巡大聖) (fig. 6 and 8), who oversees activities outside the temple. He is located to the right of the trinity; the slightly larger, staff-wielding Internal Affairs Great Sage (Neiwu Zongguan Dasheng, 内務總管大聖) (fig. 7 and 8) serves as a manager to lower-ranking Monkeys. He is located to the left of the trinity; and the Sergeant Great Sage (Shiguan Dasheng, 士官大聖) (fig. 9) serves as the temple director. This comparatively small statue sits behind a magistrate’s bench below the altar stage, just behind the offerings table.

altar statues and sergeant great sage

Fig. 8 – The altar stage layout, with the most important Great Sages labeled (larger version). Fig. 9 – The Sergeant Great Sage sitting at a magistrate’s bench (larger version). 

In addition, the Elder Great Sage has at his disposal a group of powerful commanders known as the Five Camps Celestial Generals (Wuying Bingjiang, 五營兵將), who protect the five cardinal directions. These are the black Northern Camp Sage Lian Gong (Beiying Lian Gong Shengzhe, 北營連公聖者); the blue/green Eastern Camp Sage Zhang Gong (Dongying Zhang Gong Shengzhe, 東營張公聖者); the red Southern Camp Sage Xiao Gong (Nanying Xiao Gong Shengzhe, 南營蕭公聖); the white Western Camp Sage Liu Gong (Xiying Liu Gong Shengzhe, 西營劉公聖者); and the golden Central Camp Marshal of the Central Altar (Zhongying Zhong Tan Yuanshuai, 中營中壇元帥) (fig. 10). Each general in turn leads a vast heavenly army comprised of tens of thousands of soldiers. Such generals are very common to Daoist temples across Taiwan and find their origin in the 36 protector generals of Daoism (Sanshiliu Tianjiang, 三十六天將), who funny enough are led by Zhu Bajie’s previous incarnation Marshal Tianpeng (Davis, 2001, p. 78).

The position of the Great Sage pantheon in relation to the wider Buddho-Daoist pantheon mirrors that from Journey to the West. Despite his central position in Wanfu’s religious life, the Great Sage is still considered subordinate to the Bodhisattva Guanyin (觀音), whose birthday was being celebrated on the second day of my visit with a vegetarian meal open to all. In fact, the temple’s second floor Three Jewels Hall (Sanbao Dian, 三寶殿) contains statues of the Buddha and flanking Bodhisattvas raised on an altar stage, with a statue of Guanyin placed in front of and almost at the same level as the Enlightened One (fig. 11). This shows her great importance.

Soldiers and Guanyin

Fig. 10 – Two sets of the Five Camps Celestial Generals can be seen. Their colors of black, blue/green, red, white, and gold help distinguish each one (larger version). Fig. 11 – The statue of Guanyin sitting in front of and almost at the same level of the Buddha (larger version). The goddess Mazu sits in front of Guanyin. From the second floor Three Jewels Hall.

3. Worshiping the Great Sage and requesting blessings

When the faithful come to pray, they often stand directly in line with the center of the altar, (fig. 12) with hands pressed and set against their forehead (or chest), or they light a grouping of three incense sticks, kneel on the praying couch, and hold the sticks up to their forehead (or chest) with elbows level, often rhythmically bobbing their arms or upper torso (fig. 13). The procedure for making a request has three steps. First, adherents greet the Great Sage and say their full name, lunar birthday (and time if known), and their address. This is done because many people have names spelled with the exact same Chinese characters. The step insures the Great Sage answers the right prayers for the right person. Second, they wish for health, wealth, good luck, removal of a negative influence, etc. Third, they later burn spirit money to repay Monkey’s generosity. This form of prayer is for those who don’t mind waiting for a response.

For those seeking an immediate response, the temple employs a pair of crescent moon-shaped wooden blocks known as “bamboo cups” (jiaobei, 筊杯) (fig. 8) for divination purposes. The procedure starts the same with the greeting and personal information, but the cups are grasped between the hands during the prayer and then dropped to the ground after a 10 minute waiting period. Like rolling spiritual dice, the faithful take note of the orientation in which the blocks fall. One side of the blocks is flat, while the other is curved. If one cup falls with the flat side upwards (open) and the other flat side down (closed), this means “yes” (shengjiao, 聖筊). If both fall upwards, this means the Great Sage is happy or “laughing” at the request (xiaojiao, 笑筊). If both fall facedown, the Great Sage is “angry” and unwilling to fulfill the request (nujiao, 怒筊) (fig. 14). The cups are thrown three times and the best two of three results are accepted as the answer.

Worship pics

Fig. 12 – The offering table and altar (larger version). Fig. 13 – A young couple praying to the Great Sage (larger version). Fig. 14 – The Bamboo cups, both sitting in the “angry” response (cup down) (larger version).

Often times adherents will want more clarification, so the blocks are used in tandem with “fortune sticks” (qiuqian, 求籤). The traditional procedure is to shake the cylinder full of sticks, each marked with a number, until one falls out. (I, however, saw one young man with long, dyed hair randomly reach into the cylinder without shaking it. He also didn’t wait the required period after his prayer to drop the cups. He must have been in a hurry!) The adherent then looks up the corresponding oracle in a booklet kept on the temple’s front desk. These oracles are also available on slips of paper that can be taken and read later. The use of the bamboo cups and fortune sticks is common in other temples.

I asked one young couple associated with the temple about the exact number of members. They were unsure of the core members and especially of the number of outside worshipers. It appears the veneration of the Great Sage is so entrenched in Tainan religious society that people from other temples will come from time to time to pay their respects to Monkey.

3.1. Great Sage Spirit-Medium

The second day of my visit coincided with one of the twice weekly (Wed. and Sat.) rituals in which the temple’s spirit-medium (Hokkien: tangki, 童乩; Chinese: jitong, 乩童, lit: “divining youth”) calls down the spirit of the Great Sage to possess his body (video 1). Prior to the ritual, red ropes were used to demarcate a sacred space within the center of the altar hall. The ropes were tied to either side of the main central temple doors and stretched diagonally to the respective left and right walls of the hall, forming a V-shape, or a sort of spiritual bottleneck. Only the medium and the temple workers were allowed to inhibit this sacred space shortly before and during the ritual. The faithful seeking blessings and spectators were asked to wait on the other side of the ropes, entering through secondary doors located to the respective left and right of the main set.

Video 1 – The spirit-medium ritual.

I witnessed the medium chewing an herbal substance that was removed prior to the ritual. [2] He then proceeded to purify himself with a small pot of (psychoactive?) incense, first bathing his hands and arms in the smoke, before passing it around his head, waist, and calves. Taking hold of the pot’s handles, he began belching. This gave way to a moving trance in which he marched in place for several minutes. The arrival of the Great Sage was signaled by an audible growl and the medium lifting high one knee, taking on a martial pose like esoteric protector deities (fig. 15). After an attendant removed his shirt, he squatted low to the ground and struck another pose with arms flexed like said deities (fig. 16). Such postures serve to mark the medium’s transition from a human to a god.

The medium-turned-Great Sage displayed jovial feet clapping, followed by feats of strength, including elevated push ups and a handstand. Finally, he stood atop a wooden bench and used his weight to rock it side to side, slamming the feet down in rapid succession, producing a sound similar to firecrackers. The sound is used to scare away evil influences. I was told in advance that the medium would “do exercise” and use the bench “to make noise”, so these appear to be common aspects of the ritual.

ueqikq

Fig. 15 – The stance announcing the Great Sage’s arrival (left) is similar to esoteric guardian deities, such as the temple’s depiction of Wangling Tianjun (center left) (larger version). Fig. 16 – His next stance (center right) is also similar to said guardians, especially this statue based on a famous 14th-century carving of a Japanese Nio (right) (larger version).

The Great Sage welcomed the first of many children and blessed each the same with the following procedure. First, he touched the top of the incense pot and then transferred his hand to the child’s crown, doing this three times. Second, he dipped his finger into the incense and drew a line down the center of the child’s face from the forehead to the chin and onto the neck. Third, after dipping his fingers in the incense again, he traced a rectangular form on the child’s torso, possibly a symbolic fu (符) talisman, before pushing on the stomach several times to release, as I was told, “bad air” (negative qi). The same rectangle was traced on the child’s back. Fourth, the Great Sage dipped his finger in the incense and turned to the table to write out three fu talismans on yellow strips of paper, his finger often floating above the surface. One was packaged to be later burnt and the ashes combined with an included tea leaf and cold (yin) and hot (yang) water to be given to the child as a magical brew. The second was folded and put inside of a red pouch to be worn as a good luck charm (fig. 17-19). The third was lit and waved over the child’s head and around their body.

Package and charm

Fig. 17 – A baggy containing a loose fu talisman, a folded talisman inside of a red charm, and a tea leaf (larger version). This baggy was given to me when I participated in similar ritual for adults. Fig. 18 – The front of the charm reading “Tainan Wanfu Temple, safety and peace” (larger version). Fig. 19 – The back reading “Great Sage Equaling Heaven”, “Guanyin/Shakyamuni”, and “Multitude of Gods and Buddhas” (larger version). 

The large number of children taking part in the ritual (many of which were not shown in the video) is, as mentioned above, tied to the temple’s history. Adherents believe the Great Sage bestows blessings on children, as well as cures them of illnesses when they are sick. [3] Additionally, they believe those taken as the Great Sage’s godchildren will be well-behaved and become well-tempered adults. [4] For those who have read the novel, this may at first appear to be a paradox—Monkey, a paragon of good behavior?!—but this no doubt refers to his internalization of self-restraint after becoming a Buddha at the end of the novel. This coincides with the disappearance of his restraint-inducing golden headband.

Numerous adults also sought the Great Sage’s blessing. Having already provided their personal information on salmon-colored prayer sheets to Temple personnel, each person in turn greeted the medium and then made their request (health, wealth, good luck, etc.). The blessing procedure was the same regarding fu talismans, complete with the third being lit and waved around the head and body. I even saw the Great Sage bless a shirt in place of an adherent who could not come in person. When interacting with the faithful, the medium spoke to them in a high-pitched voice, [5] often making people laugh with his responses. I was later informed that the language used was Taiwanese, which explains why I couldn’t understand what was being said. I too took part in the ritual and noted that the medium’s eyes were rolled back into his head. Apart from the poses at the beginning, the voice and eyes serve to mark the possessed state.

The medium has held his position at the temple for 20 years. But it should be noted that he has a normal job during the week and volunteers his time at the temple. His path to mediumship began as a young man when he started displaying certain behavior signifying he had been chosen by the Great Sage to be his earthly representative. While many mediums go through a period of training under a “Red Hat” Daoist (Hongtou Daoshi, 紅頭道士), a master of religious ceremony (Clart, 2008), I was told the methods of mediumship were revealed to him in his dreams by the Great Sage while he slept in the temple for 49 days.

3.2. Celebrating the Great Sage’s Birthday

The Monkey King’s birthday is recognized as the 12th day of the 10th lunar month and is celebrated over the course of three days. This year the birthday will correspond to November 19th. The first day of celebrations is undertaken by core temple members, while the subsequent days are undertaken by sister temples. Below is a video showing a time-lapse of a past celebration. Many people crowd the temple to pay their respects, as well as to laden the offering table with all kinds of delicious fruits and sweets. I can picture the Great Sage rolling around on the ground and laughing in delight!

Video 2 – The celebration of the Great Sage’s birthday.

His offerings are later shared with his five celestial generals in the Rewarding Soldiers ritual (Kao jun, 犒軍). This too is common in other temples.

4. Conclusion

The Buddho-Daoist Wanfu Temple of Tainan, Taiwan worships Sun Wukong under his guise as the Great Sage Equaling Heaven, who is venerated as a powerful exorcist and healer, as well as a sort of patron saint of children. The main focus of worship is a 300-plus-year old stone statue believed to have been brought over from Fujian during the turmoil of the late Ming dynasty. The temple recognizes an entire pantheon of Great Sages, from a trinity (headed by the aforementioned statue) and administrative managers down to an army of lowly soldier monkeys. Furthermore, the Great Sage has at his disposal five cardinal celestial generals and their respective armies to insure his will is done. The position of the Great Sage within the greater Buddhist pantheon is the same as in the novel. He is subordinate to the Bodhisattva Guanyin, who is considered by Wanfu to be almost equal to the Buddha in terms of importance.

The Great Sage-adherent dynamic involves two forms of interaction, impersonal and personal. The former involves the adherent praying to the deity in heaven, sometimes using bamboo cups, fortune sticks, and corresponding oracle booklets to divine the Great Sage’s response to their request. The latter involves personal interaction with the deity via a spirit-medium. The Wanfu medium twice-weekly (Wed. and Sat.) holds a ceremony where he calls down the Great Sage and, after taking possession, the deity personally interacts with those seeking blessings. He employs magic fu talismans to bless both children and adults, the paper slip being burnt and waved around their body. The ritual for children is more involved as incense is first used to draw talismans on their body and then negative qi is released by pushing on the stomach.

I plan to revisit the temple at a later date to conduct more in-depth research into the particulars of the pantheon, as well as the ritual of the spirit-medium. Visiting during the Great Sage’s birthday, the 12th day of the 10th lunar month, would be an ideal time since it’s no doubt a time of much fanfare.


Update: 07/21/2020

Wanfu Temple’s “black command flag” (Hokkien: or leng ki; Mandarin: hei leng qi, 黑令旗) (fig. 20) is located just outside the rightmost front entrance. Elliott (1955/1990) writes command flags advertise the presence of a spirit-medium, while also serving as a warning to ghosts and demons (p. 51). Chan (2014) explains such flags are imbued with the power of the Dark Emperor of the North, considered the greatest exorcist god in Daoism, and act as a covenant between the deity and the tangki spirit-medium who leads his heavenly armies against evil (p. 34).

Fig. 20 – The Wanfu Temple black command flag (larger version). Fig. 21 – The flag legend (larger version).

Each flag is covered with arcane symbols that are usually only intelligible to the initiated. With some help, [6] I have made a near complete translation of the Wanfu black command flag (fig. 21):

  1. 雨漸耳 (yu jian er) – “Rain soaks the ears”, likely referring to a commandment from heaven.
  2. 六? (Liu ?) – The mystery character likely refers to the Six Ding (六丁), protector spirits of Daoism. They are often grouped with the Six Jia (Mugitani, 2008). This is likely connected to no. 11 below.
  3. 六甲 (Liu Jia) – Refers to the Six Jia. This is likely connected to no. 12.
  4. 北極 (Bei ji) – The “Northern Ultimate”, referring to the Dark Emperor of the North. Here, the character for “north” is split in half and “ultimate” is inserted in the middle.
  5. ?富? – Two unknown characters sandwich that for “wealth” (fu).
  6. Sun – A symbol for 陽 (yang) energy.
  7. Moon – A symbol for 陰 (yin) energy.
  8. Big Dipper – A seven-star pattern associated with Daoist ritualistic dances and purification ceremonies. See section one of my article here for more info.
  9. 風調雨順 (feng tiao yu shun) – A common Chinese idiom meaning “the wind and rain are seasonal” (i.e. the weather is good).
  10. 國泰民安 (guo tai min an) – Another common idiom. It means “the country is prosperous, and the people are secure”.
  11. 敺邪 (qu xie) – “Expel evil/disease”. This is likely connected to no. 2 above. Together it would read the “Six Ding expel evil/disease”.
  12. 押煞 (ya sha) – “Stop malicious spirits”. This is likely connected to no. 3. Together it would read the “Six Jia stop malicious spirits”.
  13. This angular symbol is the 符胆 (fu dan), the talismanic flag’s locus of power (Chan, 2014, p. 35).

Notes:

1) One report from the 17th-century describes the Great Sage appearing in the clouds over the Fujian coast and beating back invading Japanese pirates during the preceding century.

2) This appears to be a common practice. In his study of Singaporean spirit-mediums, Elliott (1955/1990) writes: “Before their performances many dang-ki have been seen to chew some sort of root or sip from a cup, but it has been impossible to ascertain whether these contain stimulating substances” (p. 64).

3) The Great Sage after all is a trained doctor. His medical skills are described in chapters 68 and 69.

4. Such youths are known as “dedicated children” (khoe-kia) in Singapore (Elliott, 1955/1990, p. 83).

5) Elliott (1955/1990) references the tangki‘s “shrill, artificial voice” and notes it’s “supposed to be ‘shen [神, god] language'” (p. 64).

6) I am indebted to Kelly Black Lin for helping me decipher some of the cryptic characters.

Sources:

Chan, M. (2014). Tangki War Magic: The Virtuality of Spirit Warfare and the Actuality of Peace. Social Analysis: The International Journal of Social and Cultural Practice, 58(1), 25-46. Retrieved from http://jstor.org/stable/24718290

Clart, P. (2008). Tang-ki (or jitong) In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 2 (pp. 964-966). London [u.a.: Routledge].

Davis, E. L. (2001). Society and the Supernatural in Song China. Honolulu (Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press.

Elliott, A. J. (1990). Chinese Spirit-Medium Cults in Singapore. London: The Athlone Press. (Original work published 1955)

Mugitani, K. (2008). Liujia and Liuding. In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Vol 1-2 (pp. 695-697). Longdon: Routledge.